By Dedra Cordle
Most students do not want anything to do with school during summer break. They want to have fun, decompress from a long year and do just about anything else that does not require being near school grounds. Yet there is a group of children and adults from Prairie Lincoln Elementary who voluntarily spend their summer days coming back.
The desire to return began to take root last year when members of the neighboring Westminster Presbyterian Church proposed a collaboration with the school to benefit the greater community.
“We didn’t have any particular idea in mind,” said Jim Benney, a team leader at the church. “We just wanted to do something together that would serve our local community.”
When educators at the school began to brainstorm collaborative concepts, one idea that kept popping up was the establishment of a garden.
“We all liked the idea of starting a garden because it served a variety of purposes,” said second grade teacher Meghann Hall. “Not only could we shape lessons around the science and nutrition behind a garden, but we could also have our kids play a vital role in helping to feed others.”
With Principal Julie Kenney’s blessing, the staff went ahead with forming a garden task force. However, there was one caveat: they had to find another place to build the garden.
“Due to safety reasons, we could not have our garden located on the school property,” said Hall.
That’s when the church stepped in.
“We have a lot of free green space,” said Benney.
With the idea and location locked down, the task force reached out to the Parent Teacher Association for assistance. One member said she knew an Eagle Scout, Conner Kennedy, who was looking for a project and wanted to build the raised beds. Other members said they could help raise seedlings. But there was another aspect they desperately needed help with and that was funding.
That’s when Eli Green stepped in.
“Eli was our unsung hero,” said Hall.
Having graduated from Prairie Lincoln Elementary more than two years ago, the soon-to-be seventh grader at Norton Middle offered his services writing a grant for Katie’s Krops, a non-profit organization that helps communities build gardens to feed the hungry. In his essay, he wrote about having witnessed firsthand friends and family who could scarcely afford food, let alone fresh produce, and wanted to make a difference in their lives.
“I want to be able to help them by providing them with free and healthy food,” he said.
Shortly thereafter, the school was informed that they had received a $500 grant to start their garden.
In May, Kennedy and his fellow Boy Scout troops came to Westminster Presbyterian and tore up the land to create six beds – one for each grade level to grow their own crops, and one for the church to grow theirs too.
With the help of Benney’s childhood friend and master gardener Roger McArtor, they filled the beds with the most growth friendly dirt and then waited for the kids to arrive.
“We brought them all over, grade level by grade level, and they were so excited,” said Hall. “Most of them had never planted a seed before, let alone used a tiny shovel, but they were all so thrilled to pitch in.”
They planted sunflowers, cabbage, lettuce and strawberries. They planted tomatoes and spinach. They planted herbs like basil, thyme and dill. And they even planted a few native flowers to attract more bees.
Hall said each of the students at the school played some role in creating the garden.
“It truly has been a school-wide effort,” she said.
As the end of the school year approached, several students expressed concern about the state of the garden.
“They were very worried it wouldn’t be there when they got back,” said Hall.
But she promised to come back and take care of the garden (she goes twice a week, along with fellow educator Ruth Mohr), and so did the Boy Scouts, the local Girl Scout troops, the church congregation, and even Green and his family.
“We all go there every week,” said Amy Green, Eli’s mother.
In the weeks that followed since the initial planting, the crops grew. And grew. And grew some more. Thankfully, said Hall, insects have been kind to the garden. So has the neighboring community.
“They have been wonderful,” she said. “We lack a great irrigation system here but they have donated at least five rain barrels for us to use.”
Benney said when they proposed the collaborative concept, they had no idea this would be the outcome but he believes it perfectly encompasses the spirit of the community.
“This is a community that cares about each other,” he said.
In mid-July, the sign designation the garden as the ‘Lincoln Village Youth and Community Garden’ will arrive, as will those who voluntarily return to take care of it. There are many plans to expand the garden, but for now they are just looking forward to what it can and will do for those in the community.
“It’s a great way to start to make a difference in the world,” said Eli Green.