Call of the Valley: Ali Casparian's journey to Bounty & Soul
Ali Casparian’s journey encompasses two distinct phases separated by a traumatic, life changing experience. Running through it all is her boundless entrepreneurial spirit and the nurturing nature of food.
“Since I was very young, I always knew two things: Food was very important to me and so was business," said Casparian, the executive director and founder of Bounty & Soul. "As a child in Peekskill, New York, I started out picking the currant berries growing on our property, made jam, put it in jars, set up a stand in our driveway and sold currant jelly to people driving by. I was also the taster in the family, fascinated with whatever my Armenian grandmother was cooking up.
"Everything culminated in the joyful family gatherings as I learned how important and instrumental the sharing of cooking and freshly grown produce from my grandfather’s garden was. It was all very intentional, going out with my grandfather to pick the fresh vegetables, being with my mom and my three sisters in the kitchen taking delightful hours to prepare. It’s in my blood.”
Casparian's early appreciation of food and its origins led to a 20-year period where her business acumen took center stage. She wanted to be a chef, study at the nearby Culinary Institute and start her own restaurant. However, at the time, becoming a chef was a male-dominated pursuit.
Instead she earned a degree in personnel administration, which led to a managerial position with two notable food service companies catering to high end dining needs of major corporations with sites including the World Trade Center. With the advent of 9/11, needing a sense of balance in her life and disinclined to tackle another administrative position in some other state, she was fired and ultimately found work managing a café in Chatham, New York.
During this Chatham period, Casparian fell into a relationship that proved toxic and was fleeced of everything she owned. When she tried to leave, she was violently assaulted.
“And that was a life changer," Casparian said. "In the hospital, fighting for my life, I made a pact with God and promised to serve in a community with others. When I pulled through, feeling a newborn sense of love and compassion, I assured my mother that God had a plan for me.”
As it happens, while recuperating at her sister’s home in Raleigh, someone suggested that she take a trip to Ashville just for interest sake.
“And so, as I passed Old Fort and came upon the mountains, I felt this wondrous peace come over me, and when I reached Black Mountain I knew this was where I wanted to be,” she said.
With no money or exact plan in mind, Casparian told the owners of a rustic rental cabin that she wanted to start her life over and promised she’d get work and pay them back. And this venture into the unknown soon led to her new mission.
One day she came upon a huge room full of fruits and vegetables at a MANNA Food Bank, only to discover it was slated to be dumped at a pig farm.
“At that moment, I knew there had to be some way to distribute this perfectly fresh healthy food to the community, to put it out on tables with napkins and baskets and freshly cut flowers from my garden and give it all out," Casparian said. "I got hold of people I’d met, one who had a pickup truck and others who wanted to volunteer. I got out my camping stove, began cooking which was a natural part of my background, and that’s how this nonprofit initiative got started six years ago.”
Due to an ever-growing host of volunteers -- grant writers, directors, donors, farmers, nutritionists, etc. -- Casparian’s Bounty & Soul has continued to thrive. It now has its own site off Old N.C. 70, six employees and even a holistic program teaching kids about mindfulness, nutrition and food preparation.
“In this magical area, the level of love and compassion is incredible,” she said. “The food is the vessel that brings everyone’s beautiful, authentic selves together. Everyone matters, and that’s what’s truly important on this journey.”