Jessica Romer, Denver Urban Gardens Community Initiatives Coordinator
Community building, volunteerism and education are at the heart of each school-based community garden. These intentionally located gardens provide a venue for community building between the neighbors and school community members that coexist within a neighborhood, but seldom collaborate on mutually-beneficial projects. In these gardens, neighbors grow food for themselves and teachers, parents and students grow food for taste education, farmers markets and the cafeteria, all the while exploring the multidisciplinary learning opportunities that the garden has to offer. Central to the sustainability of a garden on school grounds are the community gardeners, who are often the willing caretakers of the school plots over the summer, as well as the the volunteers, who support the school’s garden-based educational efforts. Of equal importance are the students’ participation in gardening and programming and the emphasis on education in maintaining the relevancy of a community garden on school grounds. Interest in this model has grown steadily. A third of DUG’s gardens are now located on school property, across four school districts.
For three years Denver Urban Gardens engaged in a participatory research study, Gardens for Growing Healthy Communities, with the Colorado School of Public Health to learn about the health and social benefits of community gardening. In the process of engaging participants, through focus groups and surveys, the idea to further build bridges between community members and schools at DUG’s school-based community gardens became obvious. On one hand, there are teachers and students who want to engage with the garden at their school to learn about science, nutrition, and life skills, but teachers need support to make this possible. On the other hand, there are community members who have a wealth of knowledge and experience, and may be retired or otherwise have the time and capacity to offer their undertutilized skills to their community. This realization informed the concept for an initiative called Connecting Generations that would engage older adults as mentors to utilize their extensive life skills to support teachers, students and school-based community garden programs.
Many community gardeners at DUG’s school-based community gardens volunteer informally and support teachers as they involve their students in the garden. Connecting Generations formalizes these interactions by providing screening, training and support for volunteers and the school site leaders who coordinate garden-based programming. Pamela Flowers, Connecting Generations mentor, shares, “This program has allowed me to be in the garden working alongside the children to see how it impacts them. More than once, I’ve watched children who struggled so hard to function appropriately in the classroom become kind, attentive, enthusiastic, confident, and happy youngsters in the garden. If I think or talk about it for more than a very short time it makes me cry. It’s been an incredible experience.”
In 2008, we recruited our first cohort of volunteer mentors for the Connecting Generations Program. Since then, we’ve worked with over 70 mentors at nine schools. These mentors are retired teachers, principals, librarians, healthcare professionals, writers and gardeners, among many professions. While the group of mentors is primarily made up of older adults, we’ve also worked with students, particularly from local nutrition and dietetics programs. Individually and collectively, the mentors have much to offer to young people, and the group is truly intergenerational. Mentors may be community gardeners, grandparents, or neighbors, all with an interest in supporting the development of young people by learning in gardens.
Mentors initiate, facilitate and support garden-based programming at a number of DUG’s school-based community gardens. The type of programming varies at each school, depending on their unique goals. Most leaders focus their energy on afterschool garden clubs, the Garden to Cafeteria Program, Youth Farmers’ Markets and classroom learning. Connecting Generations matches volunteers with a school site and program that fits their skill set and personality with the needs of the school. Ideally the school is close to or within the volunteer’s neighborhood. Some mentors are comfortable taking a lead role from the start, facilitating programming and recruiting a team of volunteers to work together. Others have more subtle ways of providing support; preparing snack or guiding small groups of students as they work through various garden and nutrition-based activities.
The garden can be a very gratifying place to work with young people. Janet Johnston, Connecting Generations mentor, says, “It is rewarding to help children and families learn how to garden. The excitement and pride seen on each child’s face at time of harvest is what makes participating in the Connecting Generations Program so worthwhile for me.” Janet and Pamela volunteer as a team at Maxwell Elementary School, co-teaching nutrition and gardening lessons to a 5th grade classroom throughout the school year.
When asked why she volunteers as a mentor, Pamela Flowers adds, “Mentors in this program have the opportunity to influence the way individual children view the food they eat, the food choices they make, and where their food comes from. It has been amazing for me to witness the change in some of the kids regarding their attitude toward new, healthier food. At this point in the year, most of the children are willing to try anything we serve them. This was not the case when the school year began. Now, they will taste it no matter what it is and I think that alone will impact them for the rest of their lives! And now the majority of the kids, the majority of the time, like it. I love that!”
As the growing season approaches, we are seeking mentors to join our efforts in DUG’s school-based community gardens. To learn more and get involved, contact Jessica at 303.292.9900 or Jessica@dug.org.