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Growing community support in a school garden

#20: Meet Pallas, cofounder and longtime Garden Leader at Samuels Elementary Community Garden

“I was one of the founders of the Samuels garden in 2011, and have been a Garden Leader there for the last 10 years. I was never a gardener before; I didn’t even think I’d be capable of growing anything! It was all trial-and-error and experimentation in the beginning. Like many DUG school-based community gardens, Samuels began as a parent initiative. At the start, 3 parents including myself made-up the garden leadership team. We followed DUG’s handbook that includes guidelines, protocol, and recommendations on how to start a garden. We followed the outlined steps on how to create a strong base of community and support. We reached out to the surrounding community and got buy-in from teachers, administration, HOA, and surrounding neighbors. Samuels started on solid ground because of DUG. We felt the community piece from the beginning. It just worked, we had fun with it. It wasn’t hard because the motivation was already there. It was like, “Okay, we’re here, we’re doing this, we’re rocking it!” It was so much fun all the time. It was always about the families and friendships at Samuels, adults and students alike. 

The After-School Garden Club at Samuels was popular from the get-go. It’s a free club led by adult volunteers that runs for 8 weeks in the fall and 8 weeks in the spring. So many kids signed-up right away. Everyone looks forward to it now.

The kids and parents see me in the hallway and ask when club is starting up again. Garden Club is run by adult leaders who are each assigned to a group of students.

Each group decides together what activities they want to do every week- like worm composting, veggie pickling, and starting seedlings in the greenhouse. We provide snacks of fruits and veggies right as the students come out of school. The only thing we ask of the parents is that they pick up their child afterwards.

Most of the students come to school on the bus, but parents make it work because Garden Club is so important to their kids. It didn’t take long before we were serving 20% of the student body, more than 100 kids. It was incredible to see that amount of activity, engagement, and ownership.

We now have 15 plots dedicated to the students, the DPS Garden-to-Cafeteria Program, and to the food bank. At the beginning of summer, these plots are turned over to the care of the community gardeners who maintain them in the students’ absence. When the students come back in the fall, they do their weekly harvest for the cafeteria, where they come to the garden with their teachers to weigh and collect fresh produce for the school. I’m planning to lead cooking activities for the last time this spring, even though my kids haven’t been at Samuel for a couple of years now.

I just can’t resist gardens club, it’s the best!

What I really love is that Samuels has been a successful vehicle in building community. We have the involvement and support from the school community, neighbors, and the greater district 4 at large.

Having teachers’ support has really bridged the gap between the garden and the school. It’s a constant learning and growing process. We’ve never required anyone to do things a certain way. It’s always been free-flowing with no pressure; a place to be a kid, have fun, learn, and enjoy friendships. I’ve had the opportunity to garden a lot with my dad, which has been personally gratifying. He started an Earth Day tradition with our family in 2008 where we plant trees on Samuels’ campus. My dad has been planting and maintaining our decorative garden beds with native Colorado plants, flowers, bushes, and all of the beautiful and sensory parts of our garden since the beginning. Samuels is a place to learn how to build relationships. I’ll miss the friendships at Samuels the most. There’s a lot of laughter and goofing off all the time. And when you bring sharing food into the picture, it’s even richer and deeper. 

I love the beauty of discovery, where I’m working with children and adults and we’re discovering things together in the garden. I’ve grown as a gardener. I now appreciate nutrition, cooking, and healthy bodies. I’ve realized just how powerful it is to see the magical expression on a child’s face when they pull up a carrot. That’s what has always motivated me- giving that seed-to-table kind of experience to kids. They grow their own food, wash it, chop it, cook it, and eat it. It’s really gratifying.

We’ve been growing our garden every year in some way. During COVID, we installed a garden kitchen with commercial-grade countertops. We use the counterspace to chop and wash veggies, set-up our food donations, and do on-site cooking with the grill there during our Monday night potlucks. Once our kitchen got installed, I felt like the garden was finally complete. I said to myself, “Okay, my work here is done.” Looking back, it was all a collaborative effort. I couldn’t have done it myself; I was only one member of such a strong team. The one piece of advice I’d give to any new garden just starting out would be to build a strong leadership team. You need a big team, the broader the better!”

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