2017 Youth 1st Place (tie) – Catherine Desourdy School Garden Mentor Program, University of Rhode Island

Catherine Desourdy School Garden Mentors (SGMs) are specially trained University of Rhode Island (URI) Extension Master Gardeners who volunteer in schools on behalf of URI Cooperative Extension’s School Garden Initiative. This project, which tied for second place in the 2017 Extension Master Gardener Search for Excellence Youth Category, cultivates a love of nature, a respect for all living things, and a foundation in natural sciences for school-aged youth. Over sixty schools in Rhode Island and nearby Massachusetts and Connecticut have partnered with URI Master Gardeners to help children of all ages learn about the world around them and how to become its stewards.

The award will be given on July 11 at the General Session of the International Master Gardener Conference in Portland, Oregon.  The Search for Excellence is the recognition program for outstanding Extension Master Gardener projects throughout the United States, Canada and South Korea.

The garden at Waddington Elementary in East Providence, Rhode Island, has helped the children feel closer to nature and empowered to help protect it.  Art teacher/ URI Master Gardener Melissa Guillet has them study live insects and draw and make models from specimens. They look for evidence of tracks, scat, and homes, plant veggies, share salad, soups, and teas with their produce, and learn to work as a team.  They learn how seeds travel, seeking seeds out in the fall, and design their own seed packs.  They make art out of leaves and identify trees.  It’s non-stop exploration at this school, even measuring soil moisture and rainfall to track el Nino for GLOBE and NASA and designing their own anemometers!  They do this all through collaborations with URI Master Gardeners Desourdy School Gardens program, Barrington Land Trust, ASRI, parents, other volunteers, and the environmental curriculum developed by Melissa Guillet through 15 Minute Field Trips™.

Hamilton Elementary School in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, focused more exclusively on sustainable “green” gardening practices. Everyone learned about the importance of companion planting and its Abenaki Native American origins at the school’s Three Sisters Garden. Later, they planted a square-foot garden bed and harvested food for nearby food pantries.

Two hundred Cluny Elementary School children, in Newport, Rhode Island, gardened in the winter by planting seeds under hoop coverings and in ziplock bags, which were placed in milk containers in the snow. They also planted a raspberry patch and apple trees. At their plant sale students made $80 selling their own lettuce and that money was used in other school garden projects.  They hope to create a rain garden next year and hook up rain barrels to water their beds.

The School Garden Mentor project is named for the late URI Master Gardener, Catherine Desourdy, whose family made a bequest in her name after her death in 2008.  Its main purpose has been to connect youth to gardening. More than 13,000 children have learned to value growing locally, to understand the importance of vegetables in a healthy diet, the role of pollinators and beneficial insects, the need to recycle, and the stages of growth in plants, among other things. As Vanessa Venturini, URI Master Gardener State Program Leader says, “School gardens serve as living laboratories, giving students access to authentic learning environments to help them learn science, math, social studies and other concepts.”

Testimonies from those taking part prove her point. One teacher cites overhearing a boy instructing his grandfather on the importance of planting marigolds to “keep the bad bugs away” instead of spraying seedlings, which would “kill the bees and the good bugs” as well. Another recounts the responses of first graders to learning about vermicomposting, “We didn’t really like worms but now that we know how important they are to helping our earth and our garden grow, we love them.”

More than fifty URI Master Gardeners currently serve as mentors, with more interns training each year. A team of regional “School Garden Mentor Managers”organize and support the mentors.  School garden Mentors assist classroom teachers in a number of ways:

  • Bringing together school garden teams consisting of teachers, staff, parents and students to ensure long-term success and continuity;
  • Helping them make decisions in the garden such as choosing a site and selecting appropriate plants
  • Completing soil tests and making recommendations for amending beds prior to planting
  • Providing access to standards-based curricula for use in the garden classroom
  • Supplying school gardens with donations of seeds and seedling donations for pollinator and vegetable gardens
  • Making available the URI Gardening & Environmental Hotline, URI Plant Clinic and other URI Cooperative Extension resources to troubleshoot

The first School Garden Mentors volunteered in three suburban elementary schools in 2011.  Since then the project has expanded to include public and private schools, reaching K-12 students in urban and rural areas as well. As of 2016, a partnership has developed between URI Cooperative Extension and the Providence Public School District to develop and support school gardens on a district level.  This School Garden Initiative has generated best practices which are then shared through continuing education classes designed for School Garden Mentors working statewide.

 

 

 

 

 

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