Every year when the new Youth Garden Grant application comes out, I think back to the first youth garden I helped with in a significant way. While I was in graduate school, I volunteered in a local classroom one morning a week, providing a short program and seasonal gardening activities. The school was unique in that it was part of a our local school district, but it was comprised of one main classroom teaching kids ages K-12 and was located at a shelter for kids who had been removed from their homes due to abuse and neglect. Some of the kids were there for a very short time before getting placed in foster homes, while others were there much longer because it was not safe for them to be in foster care for various reasons. The garden was in a courtyard of a highly secured building without any kind of markings on the outside. Since I never knew how many kids would be there or what ages they would be, I always had to plan for the full range of ages and bring extra supplies.
Working in small groups, we usually began with a short lesson or activity inside, and then we would go outside to work in the garden. The garden area consisted of eight vegetable beds, two compost bins and one large butterfly garden shaped like a U (Photo above. Sorry about the quality; this was taken in the pre-digital camera era).
Despite the challenges these kids faced, I can honestly say in the two years that I volunteered there there were only a few instances where I felt like our garden time was different than any other classroom. The kids were always excited about our activities and enthusiastic about everything we did in the garden. I was amazed at how engaged the kids were in the garden and by their expressions of joy when in fact most were dealing with circumstances that were beyond what I could even imagine. I never felt like I had to work to hold their attention, and I do not remember ever having to deal with any behavioral issues. After my volunteer time there, I was completely sold on the power of the garden as an educational tool.
I will be the first to admit that I probably learned as much, if not more, about gardening as the kids. Even though I grew up around gardens, I have to chuckle about some of the things I planned—like planting a raised bed of sunflowers against a fence that was not fitted to the ground so that all the soil washed away the first major rain we had; showing up to make butterfly baths without anything to stir the concrete mix with; drilling holes in the bottom of our worm bin without putting a tray under it to catch any over flow… I could go on and on. Fortunately for me, the classroom teacher at the shelter had a heart of gold and was so patient with me as I learned what worked and what did not. I like to think the kids enjoyed the fact that I did not know everything and was learning along with them.
So, circling back to the Youth Garden Grant. While I was volunteering at the shelter garden, with the help of the kids we applied for and received a Youth Garden Grant. This was when I got to see the magic of receiving national recognition for a youth garden program. The kids were so proud of their work, especially the ones who had helped write the grant—it was like Christmas when all of our award products were received! As great as the prizes were, it was the recognition we received that made the biggest impact. For the staff and myself it felt like a thank you for all of our hard work keeping the program going. Plus, after receiving the grant, we also received additional funding from the school district and the shelter specifically for the garden. It also led to additional donations of plants and soil. Those of us closely involved had seen the benefits and rewards of the program first hand, but all of a sudden administrators who were not directly involved saw its value and wanted to help. It solidified the program in a way that I had not anticipated, and I am happy to say that the garden continued long after I had graduated and moved on.
KidsGardening (prior to 2016 as an initiative of the National Gardening Association) has been offering Youth Garden Grants since 1982. It is the absolute highlight of my year to get to read all of the wonderful applications that come in … and honestly, the it's hardest thing not to be able to provide an award to every deserving program. The Youth Garden Grant is funded by the generosity of our individual and corporate sponsors. As a former recipient, let me just take a chance to say thank you to those of you who have contributed through donations in the past. I would also like to put in a plug to those of you considering end-of-the-year donations. Investing in KidsGardening helps fund programs like the Youth Garden Grants that both literally and metaphorically plant seeds in school and youth garden programs across the country. We help plant seeds of plants, seeds of learning, seeds of joy, seeds of hope, and seeds of love. Click here if you would like to find out more about giving to KidsGardening.