Inspiring Speaker

Opening Keynote: Growing Garden Stories with Chicago’s Gardeneers

Tuesday, July 9
Selma Sims, Chief Executive Officer and Head Grower, Gardeneers

The 2024 NCYGS centers on garden stories: how youth can express and shape their narratives through gardening, how gardens can grow stories of personal and community success, and how gardens and literacy efforts can support each other. Selma Sims, CEO and Head Grower at Gardeneers, will share stories of Chicago’s landscape history and how it inspired the creation of Gardeneers; stories of the organization’s growth; stories about budding horticulturists who learn from Gardeneers; and the story of her own career trajectory. This keynote talk will offer youth gardening models and concrete tips to inspire your own garden stories!

Closing Keynote: Growing Garden Stories with ALA Book Awards
Thursday, July 11
Amy Koester, Director of Public Services at Skokie (IL) Public Library

Books and stories seed imagination, wonder, and discovery for young people at every age, and incorporating books into your gardening work with kids can bring joy and learning while spurring exploration and lifelong curiosity. Learn to find great titles to share with kids using some of the book awards and resources from the American Library Association. Wrap up your conference with some strategies for incorporating books into your children’s gardening practice. You might even find a new favorite garden story of your own!


Selma Sims is the CEO and Head Grower at Gardeneers, Chicago’s only custom full-service school gardens program, which built and maintains school gardens in 22 Chicago Public Schools and involves more than 1,700 middle-school student participants from Chicago’s south and west sides.

As CEO, Selma brings an inspired vision to improve how Gardeneers’ grows and distributes food, engages, and educates youth, and partners with the community. She also stewards donor relationships and staff empowerment for the blossoming nonprofit.

Selma, who was named CEO in February of 2021, is passionate about creating leadership opportunities for all staff and embracing the “human” side of human resources and non-profit leadership. Selma was instrumental in the organization’s strategic shift to address the food and health inequities amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic through the launch of the Growing + Giving Initiative.

Selma currently serves on the board of Advocates of Urban Agriculture and is a member of    Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton’s Agricultural Equity and Food Insecurity Council. Selma is also a member of the Illinois Specialty Growers Association, the Local Farmer Food Caucus with Illinois Stewardship Alliance, and MANRRS (Minorities in Agriculture Natural Resources and Related Sciences).

Selma has been working the land for more than a decade. Before being named CEO in 2021, Selma served as the Farm Manager for the Gardeneers, where she pioneered new food safety policies and protocols for the organization’s school gardens. Prior to joining the Gardeneers in 2018, Selma worked at Urban Growers Collective (formerly Growing Power Chicago) as a Youth Farm Instructor.

Selma, who majored in Agronomy and Agroecology while studying at Iowa State University, now calls Chicago’s south side home.

Amy Koester is the Director of Public Services at Skokie (IL) Public Library, where she oversees all library services for kids, teens, and adults. She served as the 2022-2023 President of the Association for Library Service to Children, which administers some of the oldest and most prestigious awards for books for children, including the Newbery and Caldecott Medals. She tends a part-shade plot in the community garden, where she’s experimenting with different annual flowers this year.