Common ground links students from Palmetto and Vermont

Thu, 03/12/2009 - 3:57pm
By: Ben Nelms

Common ground links students from Palmetto and Vermont

A large plot of ground at Wayside Park on U.S. Highway 29 in downtown Palmetto was transformed this week, as students from the University of Vermont spent their spring break helping students from Hill Country Montessori and Palmetto Elementary School’s Jr. Beta Club, along with Serenbe Organic Farms and a number Palmetto residents, to construct a community garden on property adjacent to the city’s community center.

The idea is beautiful in its simplicity. Provide space to individuals, families and groups for cultivating their own produce in a community garden. All can benefit from eating healthy food they raised and from the social interaction spawned by their efforts.

At the garden construction site on a warm, sunny Wednesday afternoon, Hill Country Montessori Place-Based Education Director Dr. Clifford Blizard explained how the project unfolded.

“This is fantastic. It’s been amazing. It started when I was called by the University of Vermont about their Alternative Spring Break Program. They were interested in the possibility of partnering with our school. They saw where our website mentioned Place-Based Education and they were probably interested in getting south of Vermont for a week as well.”

Blizard said he could hardly turn down the opportunity, so he contacted Serenbe Organic Farms manager Paige Witherington. The two developed the idea of having a community garden in Palmetto to provide space for families or community groups to have their own garden bed.

“That’s what it’s all about here,” Blizard explained. Hill Country Montessori and Palmetto Elementary’s Jr. Beta Club will both have a permanent site in the community garden. “It’s really great that the University of Vermont students arrived not even two days ago and we already have all the beds cut. Paige was out here with the tractor clearing the section of soil to be prepped and we’re almost ready for the fence to go up. And there is a partnership in so many ways with so many organizations here. The schools, an outreach for Serenbe, the University of Vermont, and also the city providing the land. This is a place of common ground for Palmetto and Chattahoochee Hill Country.”

Springing from the concept of connecting classrooms to communities, Place-Based Education (PBE) involves the idea of immersing students in local heritage, cultures, landscapes, opportunities and experiences, using these as a foundation for the study of language arts, mathematics, social studies, science and other subjects across the curriculum. PBE emphasizes learning through participation in service projects for the local school and/or community.

Sandy Mervak is one of the two site leaders for the group of students from the University of Vermont. He said the Alternative Spring Break Program directors were looking for sites for students to volunteer. The University of Vermont group includes students with majors such as Education, Nursing, English, Anthropology and Pre-Med.

“When we heard there was an interest in Place-Based Education here, one of our directors contacted the Montessori school. From there, Clifford mentioned the possibility of building a community garden. The director thought it was a great project for a group of college students to do. And the rest was just planning it,” Mervak said.

Plans for the first phase of the garden project call for installation of an area containing 15 4-foot by 8-foot plots for individuals or groups and 2 school plots surrounded by a picket fence. Future installations are expected to include blueberry bushes and fig trees along with tables and a storage shed. The remainder of the 140-foot by 90-foot area will be planted in sunflowers and other wildflowers, with composting piles, trash and recycling bins nearby.

Once completed, classes on growing and healthy living will be provided by Hill County Montessori and Serenbe Organic Farms.

Also involved in the initial effort and the ongoing participation by the Jr. Beta Club is Palmetto Elementary School Counselor Pamela Gordon. The Jr. Beta students have partnered with Hill Country Montessori students, each group set to maintain an ongoing section in the new community garden. The combined effort by the two schools is already reaping benefits beyond those found in the garden area at Wayside Park, she said.

“This is awesome. And it’s an awesome way to bring the community together because the community will have the opportunity to come to the garden and grow different vegetables and other items and work together and socialize. Hopefully, it will bring a better relationship between the schools and the community as well, because it’s our school children who are providing the garden for the community. So, hopefully, it will bring everyone together,” Gordon said. “It’s been so interesting partnering with the Montessori school. Our students have had a chance to visit their school and their students have visited Palmetto Elementary as well. We have a good relationship going. And then to bring in the college students just tops it off.”

Gordon said the garden project also fits into school’s recent Smart Kids/Healthy Kids effort where sugar has been eliminated from the school. A goal for next year’s garden harvest, said Gordon, is to have lunch for the faculty and staff from the produce the student’s grew.

Back at her home a few blocks away, setting up the many sections of fence for sanding and painting was Kimberly Adams, the community coordinator of the garden project. She and Palmetto Councilman Mike Basaric had just returned from purchasing a truckload of fence materials.

“It’s a lot of work, but it will be a very good thing for Palmetto and for the kids,” Adams said. “Next we’d like to get the senior citizens involved. And we’ve already had people interested in the garden stop by. We’ve only gotten positive feedback.”

Basaric agreed, saying the effort is another way to spur activity at the community center. More people are at a place where they want to have a home garden but might not have available space, he said, and the community garden provides that place on the grounds of the community center.

One of the University of Vermont students making the trip was Emily Silin, who took a moment out of her non-stop work Wednesday to comment on the trip to Palmetto.

“We wanted to get away from the snow and do something to help people. We were really interested in Place-Based Education. It’s definitely a lot hotter here than it is at home. We still have snow on the ground. And so it’s been really good weather for this. Hard work, slow, but we started out with a lawn and now it’s starting to look like a garden,” Silin explained with a smile, noting the accomplishments made by the cumulative group of workers by mid-week. “It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve never been to Georgia. I think most of us haven’t been down South at all.”

Assessing the university students’ spring break excursion to Palmetto, Mervak said the project was worth it.

“I think part of it is the fact that everybody in the group is interested in education, particularly this type of hands-on education with youth. And part of it is a spring break trip. I think everybody in the group was interested in taking a vacation some place and we made to a place that’s sunny and warm. If we can do worthwhile volunteer work while enjoying some vacation time, then that’s what we were looking for,” Mervak said. “We’re having a great time and enjoying ourselves. The Palmetto community has been very generous, offering free meals. And we enjoyed a couple of nights in a beautiful lakeside condo at the Georgia Baptist Children’s Home. So just a big thank you to the whole community.”

Palmetto Mayor John Miller also noted the significance of the community garden project.

“This is a great use of public space,” Miller said of the construction of the garden and the positive, ongoing community interaction that will result. “It should reap positive benefits for years to come.”

Garden plots are still available for those interested, at a price of $25 per year. Garden organizers said Wednesday that donations are still needed to help offset the cost of supplies and materials. Tax deductible donations for the Community Garden can be made payable to Hill Country Montessori, located at 8225 Atlanta Newnan Road, Palmetto, GA 30268.

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