As rising fourth grade students Clara Hum and Blair Bramlett were digging in their school garden bed Aug. 6, AmeriCorps volunteer Carey McKay spotted a squash bug. She showed the girls, reiterating what teacher Dr. Liana Tyson had shared earlier that these types of bugs kill the crops. So, she squished it.
“They should be called squish bugs,” Blair declared.
As the 9-year-olds dug roots out of a raised bed to go in the compost pile, they were learning.
“I think for me, it’s just having enthusiasm,” McKay said of teaching the students. “It’s compost, which is literally trash, but if you can be excited about that, they are excited.”
Immaculate Conception School in North Little Rock started its garden last fall, but this summer, four AmeriCorps volunteers with Full Circle FarmCorps have been helping rejuvenate it and teach lessons about nutrition and gardening to students.
It all started with a swarm of bees.
“It was probably five years ago a swarm of bees landed on our campus,” said Tyson, music teacher and sponsor of student government and the school garden. “It was a fascinating environmental science project; we started studying the bees.”
AmeriCorps member Jimmy Parks took the bees from campus and started a hive for them, even bringing honey back to the school. So when the student government wanted to start a school garden, Parks was called based on his involvement with local community gardens. The students had raised $4,000; $3,000 went toward building the garden and the extra $1,000 toward tools and seeds.
“It was something new and exciting we’ve never done before at IC,” Tyson said. “... I loved the idea of it for education and community involvement and charitable giving.”
The garden was in place for fall 2019 and students took turns caring for it, from weeding to watering and using it for class projects.
While they experimented with some winter crops, pumpkins, stemming from a class project, were the main ones to prevail, producing eight pumpkins recently harvested, Tyson said.
“Right when we were planning our big spring crops, we had to shut down the school,” due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tyson said.
While the music teacher would typically be planning school concerts, there was a silver lining to summer being far from normal. She applied for the AmeriCorps State program Full Circle FarmCorps in June to have service volunteers come out through September. They were approved and Tyson along with AmeriCorps volunteers McKay, 22, Rachel Partridge, 23, Juwan Terry, 20, and Kendall Sanders, 20, work at the garden three times a week. The volunteers, who also work at other sites including St. Joseph Center of Arkansas and Heifer International, have already built a donated shed, moved the pollinator garden and are planning lessons for students this fall. The garden is producing a variety of crops, including corn, squash, watermelon, tomatoes and cucumbers.
“Kids don’t go outside anymore,” Sanders said, between distance requirements from COVID to virtual learning. “... Being able to space out and have a fun activity” in the sun is important.
Partridge said it gives them awareness that their food doesn’t originate at a grocery store, the labor that goes into it and being open to trying what they grow.
“It’s getting to reconnect them to this ancient connection to food” and the earth, Partridge said.
About 15 students and their family signed up for tours throughout the summer, helping to plant or paint rocks for a border around the pollinator garden. Sign-ups will continue on weekends through the school year.
Blair Bramlett said the biggest lesson she’s learned after planting purple coneflowers, lettuce and dill, “that the seeds take awhile to grow,” with Hum adding, “ You have to give the plants a lot of extra attention in order to grow.”
As on-site instruction begins, students can opt to attend short lessons at the garden during recess and AmeriCorps volunteers will facilitate lessons on nutrition, growing food and cooking.
“We hope to take some of the food in the garden and, for example, teach them to make a delicious salsa,” Tyson said, along with lessons about plant cycles, weather and composting.
A long-term goal is to produce enough food to donate to Pulaski County charities and also to parishioners.
“Whenever there’s a need for parishioners in our church, we want to be able to deliver fresh food to those who need it,” Tyson said. “Particularly any older members of the church who are having a hard time getting out to the grocery store, we want to bring fresh food to them.”
Tyson said even in these uncertain times, the “garden brings people together.”
“When I see a plant coming out of the ground and I see a flower bloom, to me, I feel connected to God. I feel connected to the unbelievable beauty in this world,” she said. “And I think that the kids are going to feel the exact same way.”
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