Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by Gillian Rea
GCU News Bureau
Alexis Tomala watched of dozens of purple-shirted Grand Canyon University student volunteers, literally on hands and knees, drilling holes into hard redwood planks, and couldn’t help but think ahead to when Westwood Elementary students pour into the school’s courtyard and behold the site of growing vegetables.
Six beautiful rows of redwood planter boxes that college students built Saturday will one day contain carrots, lettuce, peppers and other delights, right outside the doors of their classrooms. It will be their own sustainable community garden.
“Some kids have never been in a garden before. They think their food comes from the supermarket,” said Tomala, a first-grade teacher at Westwood. “We bring them out here for science class to look at bugs, but imagine when we are growing things.”
GCU students joined Westwood staff, parents and Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona volunteers Saturday morning for GCU’s semiannual Serve the City, part of the University’s neighborhood revitalization initiatives.
Some 200 students and 30 Habitat volunteers were part of a morning of buzzing activity, painting building trim and playground equipment and building the showpiece -- phase one of the garden.
“GCU has really been a part of our Westwood family,” said Theresa Killingsworth, principal of the school just a little more than a mile from the University campus. “It has been embedded in our community. We are just really thankful for what is happening here today.”
Learning in a classroom with textbooks is vital, but it will be a real gift to get students outside and learn about planting, she said. The students have already started brainstorming ideas for the garden, learning how to collaborate on a project. Another tasty benefit: The school will supplement its healthy snacks with food that grows in the garden.
There’s a new awareness of healthy food and how to grow it, but also, “It’s a way to bring community together,” said Jena Akard, a College of Education Assistant Professor who helped launch the embedded teaching program at Westwood, part of an ongoing partnership that includes GCU students in the College of Education teaching weekly in the Westwood classrooms and an after-school program through the Learning Lounge in which GCU students provide free tutoring.
Akard said her COE early childhood students will join with Honors College environmental science and sustainability students to develop unit lessons for the Westwood students about growing a garden.
The garden plot, roughly 60 feet by 30 feet, was just bare ground on Saturday, where a portable classroom once stood, but it will hold planter boxes of varying heights for students in kindergarten to fifth grade to behold what is growing in them.
It’s all part of a booming movement of locally-grown foods and community gardens, said Nathan Cooper, GCU’s Urban Farm Program Manager.
“I think there is a big gap, especially with kids, in knowing where their food comes from and how to grow your own food,” Cooper said. “We are going to be doing a lot of education with them.”
Cooper said a small greenhouse, which flanks the garden, will be for starting seeds. The greenhouse will give the plants a head start before eventually being transplanted into the garden.
He will be working closely with Tomala, the school’s co-chair of the gardening project, who took a nine-week Master Gardeners course to prepare.
“For me, I just loving being in the dirt,” she said. “It calms me down, being one with nature.”
The students will benefit from additional perks from gardening, including staying active outdoors instead of sitting and partaking in the social aspects of gardening together. They also will be able to gather at an outdoor seating area under construction for an outdoor learning environment.
“It will also incorporate the language arts -- writing about the garden. It’s not just talking, it’s sharing,” Tomala said. “And they learn responsibility of keeping a garden alive.”
For GCU students, it was all part of their call to service.
“It’s about giving back to the community,” said Katie Murphy, a sophomore nursing student who was holding a drill to expertly power a hole in the redwood. “We thought we would be painting. But we like this better.”
Working with GCU, Habitat for Humanity has served 285 families in the area, and this was the third school project.
“Most people think of us as putting a family in a home. But we decided a number of years ago that we had to think about neighborhoods. And this is part of neighborhood revitalization,” said Jason Barlow, President and CEO of Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona.
It’s vital that the community takes ownership of the projects. “It’s not someone coming in and saying we are doing everything for you. We are working alongside you,” said Andrea Northup, Habitat for Humanity’s Faith Relations Manager.
That was evident on a Saturday morning, filled with the sounds of power drills, laughter and good will.
“We have a lot of work to do, and as parents, we need help. We want to see our school more beautiful for our kids,” said Carol Hernandez, a parent of two Westwood students.
“I think we are really proud of having them. I know they have other things to do on Saturday. They have their own lives. I’m really impressed that people are coming here and sharing their time. I really feel gratitude to them.”
And then she supplied her own example, while holding a brush covered in blue paint. She snapped a selfie and sent it to her children.
“My children see me involved in this and then they will like to help, too,” she said.
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
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