The Florida School of Holistic Living is a 501c3 nonprofit educational organization with the mission of cultivating sustainable community by empowering individuals through philosophy-in-practice education that promotes holistic living.
Our programming includes a comprehensive curriculum of natural health and sustainable living workshops, continuing education, and professional training. In addition, we provide the Central Florida community a space to connect with our community, build vibrant health, and deepen our relationship with the earth, through our Bodhi Garden, Community Herbal Clinic, Moon Circles, the Florida Herbal Conference, and ongoing special events.
Philosophy-in-practice education offers students the opportunity to “get their hands dirty.” We emphasize a holistic philosophy in all of our courses, a perspective which honors the whole person and their connection to their environment. We then see k to put that philosophy into practice through hands-on educational opportunities, taking our students into the field to connect with the subjects of which they are learning. By empowering our students with the knowledge and experience to live a more fulfilling, sustainable lifestyle, we hope to contribute to a more equitable, peaceful world for future generations.
Founded in 1999 as the Florida School of Herbal Studies, the school first focused on introducing the concepts and practices of holistic living through the science and art of herbalism. Classes were offered in Titusville and Orlando under the direction of herbalist George D’Arcy, hosted at local herb stores and healing centers such as Leaves and Roots and Simply Well. The school’s first building and educational gardens were established in 2005 in Winter Park under the direction of herbalist Emily Ruff, relocating to our current neighborhood in Downtown Orlando in Fall 2006.
As the school’s programming grew, so did our curricula, to serve students and assist them in fully integrating ecological herbalism into their lives. These expanded offerings included more diverse subjects of n atural health including holistic nutrition, iridology, healing with rhythm, and various nutritional theories, as well as sustainable living and urban homesteading topics such as beekeeping, permaculture, and organic gardening. The school formally changed its name to the Florida School of Holistic Living in Fall 2007 to better reflect the full scope of its mission and work in the community.
FSHL has been a driving force in Central Florida’s movement towards environmental consciousness and conservation, offering access to education on traditional philosophies and practices, as well as contemporary technologies, that foster living in harmony with the natural world. The school has been an ardent advocate for United Plant Savers, receiving the first Botanical Sanctuary designation in Florida in 2012. In support of local farmers, the school founded the Homegrown Local Food Cooperative in 2007 to build a sustainable agricultural economy in Central Florida. In 2012, in support of our regional herbal community, the school founded the Florida Herbal Conference.
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George D’Arcy (1952-2005), herbalist and school founder, was a student and apprentice of Dr. John Christopher, Rosemary Gladstar and seven other herbalists whose training motivated him to found the Florida School of Herbal Studies. Certifications as an EMT, Pharmacy Technician, and Nurse Assistant provided a context to bridge the gap between traditional healings and modern systems of wellness, which allowed Mr. D’Arcy a unique position to consult his clients to wellness with an intimate understanding of modern healthcare. As a graduate of advanced programs at the Tracker School with Tom Brown, Mr. D’Arcy’s teachings focused on integrating wellness with a relationship with our natural environment.
Carolyn Whitford (1944-2010), herbalist and charter school advisor, founded Leaves and Roots in 1993 to ensure the power of the plants remained in the hands of the people. Carolyn was a community visionary whose steadfastness and generosity provided access to herbal medicine to Central Florida residents for nearly two decades. Carolyn was a supportive advisor in the work of the school since its inception, and became active in the work of the organization by hosting classes in the research room of her store starting in 2001.
Emily Ruff, Executive Director, is a community herbalist who has practiced the art and science of plant healing for over a decade. Her studies have taken her around three continents where she has studied under healers of many traditions. Her background in gardening and botany came in childhood while wandering the wilderness and digging in the sandy soils of Florida with her grandfather, a tobacco farmer turned urban gardener, and her father, a botany and astronomy professor. Her journey into herbalism continued through apprenticeships in Guatemala under the tutelage of local healers on the southern coast of Lake Atitlan, in the mountains of Vermont at the feet of Rosemary Gladstar, and in the Central Florida apothecary Leaves & Roots with herbalists Carolyn Whitford and George D’Arcy. Emily’s academic studies include Ethnobotany, Philosophy, and Women’s Studies at the University of Central Florida and Curanderismo with the University of New Mexico. She is a Bach Flower Registered Practitioner.
Emily’s dedication to preserving bioregional medicinal plant traditions and ecosystems led her to become active in the organization United Plant Savers. Inspired by a need for greater connection among her regional community, she founded the Florida Herbal Conference event in 2012, an event which continues to sell out annually. In past years, she served multiple terms as president of the Herb Society of Central Florida and as co-founder of Homegrown Local Food Cooperative. Most recently, in response to the tragic shooting at Pulse Nightclub, Emily founded the Orlando Grief Care Project. From the community relationships cultivated through the national response to this tragedy, Emily formed the Herbal Action Network to continue weaving the web of compassionate herbalism into community engagement. Sharing her time between Florida and Vermont, she currently serves as director of the Sage Mountain Botanical Sanctuary.
Emily’s classes have been described as “heart-filled,” “enriching,” and “empowering,” creating a bridge between the teachings of our ancestors and the technologies of our modern world. Emily can be found in joy cooking, practicing yoga, writing, photographing flora, creating music with family and friends, and digging her fingers in the dirt. The plants continue to be her greatest teachers.
Maggie O’Halloran, Education Director, is an herbalist and educator in Central Florida. She comes from a large family where chaos was the norm. She always found peace outside watching things grow or climbing magnolia trees. One of her older brothers was considered hyperactive and had a hard time staying in school. Because of the impact food had on his behavior they had no sugar in the house, including ketchup! She learned in her mother’s kitchen that the things you put in your mouth impact your mind and your body.
In the early 90’s she first found her own inspiration to view health from a holistic perspective while working as a teacher assistant at a mental health hospital for children. From that experience, she decided that there had to be a better way to help kids beyond medicating them to a zombie state with pharmaceuticals. She started college studying education and psychology and ultimately received a bachelor’s degree in Human Development.
In 1999 she took her love of plants to Oakland, California where she worked with inner city elementary students and teachers, learning and teaching about violence prevention and anger management through physical education and body awareness. She explored working with food, exercise, breathing, and communication skills. She continued to study plants and their medicine by sharing with friends.
In 2006 she moved to Florida to find a slower pace in life. Though her love of teaching hasn’t waned, she took the opportunity to focus on deepening her plant knowledge in a more intentional way with herb walks with Emily Ruff. Since then she has found inspiration from teachers like Phyllis Light, Rosemary Gladstar, David Winston to name a few and mostly Emily Ruff. Finishing the community herbalist program in May of 2015. She continues her passion for helping people find peace by sharing her knowledge with whomever will listen. She enjoys working with friends, family, and strangers seeking a more holistic way to be healthy.
These days she can be found hiking on trails, tending her garden, creating something good for you in her kitchen, teaching in her community about plant medicine, and learning from her six-year-old herbalist and his friends.
Meredith Pagan, Development Director, is nearly a native Floridian, having lived here since she was two years old. After high school, Meredith began an over fifteen-year career in banking, while also managing to travel extensively, experiencing many different cultures. She was awed by the beauty and diversity of our planet, developing an acute awareness of our need to care for it and ourselves. With this awakening, Meredith went all-in, making healthy changes to her personal lifestyle, determined to live her best life. She transitioned her banking career to First Green Bank because its values aligned with hers. With this move, Meredith made a fortunate connection with Emily Ruff, the Executive Director of the Florida School of Holistic Living. Meredith became FSHL’s dedicated banker at the height of the School’s enormously successful fundraising campaign for the Medic Healer Council at Standing Rock. When First Green Bank later announced its sale, it felt natural for Meredith to combine her personal passions and her professional experience to help grow the School’s base of support. Meredith believes that the School is a significant and positive change-maker in our community that ripples out into the world. She is proud to be a part of the School and hopes to contribute to its sustainability. Meredith inherited her love for plants and nature from her father, who is a horticulturist and bonsai master. His mentorship helped shape the development of her personal business, MerePots, selling her handcrafted hypertufa pottery, highlighting her interest in both crystals and plants. Meredith also has two fur babies, Lilly and Jasmine, that she loves dearly.