Community Gardens Growing the Next Generation of Producers

It’s not every day one hears children getting excited about Brussels sprouts, and local teacher Lori Clark was happy when her pre-kindergarten class took an interest. The students at Holy Name Catholic School had spent the past weeks working in the school garden and were eager to sample their hard work, even in the form of vegetables.

“We took them back to our classroom, cooked them, and ate them,” Clark said. “Many of my students hadn’t tasted them before, and their families were pleasantly surprised to hear that so many of the children enjoyed them.”

In fact, the students had a great time learning about what each seed would need in order to produce a fruit or a vegetable, she added, not to mention the fun of playing in the dirt.

Clark doubts that they’d have taken such a vested interest if they hadn’t been involved in the process of picking and growing the seeds themselves.

And that’s exactly the point, according to Bonnie Gregory, executive director of the volunteer non-profit youth gardening collaboration Rooted in Wyoming (RiW), which is dedicated to building and nurturing school and youth gardens throughout Sheridan County.

Since its inception two years ago, RiW volunteer staff and board have built six gardens thus far, with the intention of providing intergenerational and educational recreation based around healthy, locally grown foods.

For Clark, it was the perfect opportunity to give her 4- and 5-year-old students a chance to get some hands-on learning with the added benefit of seeing where their food comes from.

Along with the garden at Holy Name, other gardens have been built throughout the county. The group has planted six gardens so far, including gardens at Big Horn School, Tongue River, Normative Services Academy, and Woodland Park.

Gregory and her crew of volunteer workers and board members say they just do the heavy lifting and labor to install the garden space, then turn it over to students, teachers, and youth leaders to design it, name it, and literally do the dirty work.

Thus far, the gardens have been a big hit with both students and teachers as the program continues to catch on.

In the meantime, Gregory is pleased to see the buy-in for so many young people. In fact, the impetus from her starting the initiative was her fear that the younger generations were getting further and further removed from the knowledge of where their food comes from.

In her past capacity at the Downtown Sheridan Association, in which she oversaw the local Farmer’s Market, it was becoming increasingly harder and rarer for her to find young growers and farmers. As the older generations aged out, she feared that lack of interest in hobby farming or on a larger scale would begin to have a direct result on the local food chain.

Also, as the mother of three boys, she was equally disappointed to see the high degree of processed food on the school lunch menu. In the past, due to federal guidelines, many local schools didn’t have a choice in what they served so Gregory packed her kid’s lunch instead.

And after stepping down from her post with the DSA, with the intent of spending more time at home with her family, Gregory soon found herself a new occupation when a conversation she’d had three years prior boomeranged back around.

Back when Big Horn Elementary School was being built, she had told Sheridan County School District #1 Business Manager Jeremy Smith to leave her space to build a garden on school grounds. Years later, Smith jokingly asked Gregory what was taking her so long. He had left her a garden space, now all she had to do was build it.

“Gardens provide students with a sense of ownership of their school and the community”

Meanwhile, the not-quite-retired Gregory found herself with a new mission at hand. And when she came home one day and told her husband, Ryan, she’d just assigned herself with a new executive director position, instead of giving her the husband of a chronically overworked wife sigh and lecture, he instead offered to jump in and help her get it off the ground, along with her three teenage boys who also stepped in to help.

That was all it took for her to galvanize the troops and get to work. To date, she estimates that she and her all-volunteer board and staff have logged in more than 6,500 hours of community service to get the program off the ground.

For her, the mission is two-fold. Along with encouraging young people to become potential future growers, she also sees the garden spaces as extended classrooms.

A recent conversation between herself and two teachers indicated that the most valuable skill to instill in a child is to become a problem-solver.

The gardens, as Gregory points out, are perfect opportunities for children to gain connections to science, health and nutrition, while also building skills in English, math, art, social studies and history.

“Gardens provide students with a sense of ownership of their school and the community,” she said. Not only have they been proven to help children become better environmental stewards, she noted, they’re also developing important secondary skills like patience, cooperation, teamwork, pride, and volunteerism.

Recently, she was pleased when a teacher at Woodland Park Elementary told her a student had announced she planned to grow up to become a farmer.

“We both whooped,” Gregory said, “I can’t tell you how happy that made me.”

By:Jen C. Kocher

THE GARDENS:

RiW Board Members: Kelly Hahn, Pam Standish, Samantha Heide, Tiffany Leimbach, Mandy Morris, Missy Hubert, Ami Erickson, Donna Johannesmeyer, Ellie Martin and Lise Foy

BIG HORN “RAM HARVEST”: Built by sheer grit and determination, RiW’s first garden was built by a hard-core group of volunteers who put their time and dedication into building the garden, including help from community partners.

HOLY NAME “GARDEN OF ISIDORE”: Named after the patron saint of farmers, this is what RiW fondly refers to as the “pop-up” garden. In production for two years, the garden serves as not only a source for fresh produce but also an extension of the school’s science lab, complete with an observatory hive of bees that help to pollinate it.

TONGUE RIVER “EAGLE’S NEST YOUTH GARDEN”: New this year, under the direction of Lise Foye, this garden was brought into production for the Tongue River Valley Community Center’s Youth Garden classes and SCSD #1’s Early Childhood Program.

WOODLAND PARK “GARDEN OF PRIDE”: With 20 raised beds, grape teepee, pizza garden, pumpkin patch, hoop house (through grant from Wyo Dept. of Education), the Garden of Pride came about with many hands and hard work.

SCIENCE KIDS “GARDEN GNOMES”: This garden classroom collaboration at the historic Quarter Circle A Ranch (The Brinton Museum) is a thriving project in the works.

RISING SUN GARDEN: RiW provided Garden Leader Carl Dube starts and money for garden materials.

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