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August 9, 2013 / HandsOnCorps

I made a difference….Rooney Charest

charestWhen I made the decision to leave Vermont for an AmeriCorps VISTA position in central Iowa, I was thrilled about the opportunity to work with school gardens in a drastically different part of the country. I had just spent six months at a working educational farm, where I led field trips and did outreach with public schools. By the end of my apprenticeship, I was left with a sense of the enormous importance of connecting children to farming and food and a conviction that this cannot be achieved with simply an annual field trip. Having witnessed the value and magic of an outdoor classroom, I felt that every school and student should have access to one. Now, I would be involved in helping to make my new beliefs come to life half a continent away.
I came to Ames just three months after ground had been broken for the city’s second elementary school garden. The garden had taken off beautifully with the help of a committed group of parent volunteers, and everything was fruiting in time for the first day of school. Now would begin the equally vital work of connecting the garden to the school—its curriculum, staff, students and community. I was surprised to learn that despite industrial agriculture’s ubiquity in Ames, many of my students had not set foot on a farm or even in a garden. In a city whose agricultural products are exported around the nation and the world, I would be encouraging the community to become more involved in the production of their own food. And this is what excited me most—facilitating that soul-stirring connection to the soil, to nature, to seeds and to that first bite of a pea or tomato you’ve grown yourself.
The community embraced the new garden at our first major event of the year: a student-run farmers market. The evening showcased the garden’s suitability as a space for community building and education: the produce sold had been nurtured by our summertime volunteers, and the students selling the veggies and giving garden tours were using skills learned in the classroom in a real life setting. Since the success of that event, my co-VISTA and I have had the chance to coordinate many other volunteer-led programming at the two elementary school gardens in Ames. (Both were founded by a partnership including my host site, the Volunteer Center of Story County.) We have held weekly garden clubs after school, at recess and during the summer, an after-school cooking club, taste-testing events, and an Earth Day celebration. We’ve hosted volunteer groups from local businesses, 4-H, the juvenile courts system, Iowa State University, international exchange programs and Ames High School. As garden coordinators, we have also supported teacher use of the outdoor classroom by identifying the possibilities for authentic learning in the garden and leading garden-based lessons. Finally, we helped set up a new middle school garden with assistance from faculty volunteers and summer camp students.
Building community with people of all ages while volunteering outside and connecting with nature has been rewarding, but my time spent with children has been the most inspiring. There is nothing like the light in their eyes when they realize that carrots grow underground or that tomatoes come in different colors, that kale and beets taste good when you know how to prepare them. Not to mention the squeals of delight when a shovelful of soil reveals wriggling earthworms! It was a good decision after all…

Rooney Charest
AmeriCorps VISTA
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