What a delight it is to volunteer at Abundant Life! I began two years ago, soon after my husband and I moved to Charlottesville to a home near Johnson Elementary, where Abundant Life offers after school tutoring and a Bible Club. These students challenge me and have created a special place in my heart.
Sowing the seeds of a gardening club
In Jeremiah 29:7 the exiles were encouraged to pray for the welfare of the city where the Lord had sent them. We should do the same. So, earlier this summer I was praying for Kaniah, a student I knew from Bible Club. My heart was heavy for this young girl because I knew that all of the city programs for children had been canceled. Not having these programs would likely make for a disappointing summer. Then an idea came to mind! What if someone would engage some of these students in a gardening club? Maybe we could build a few raised beds in the yard at the Abundant Life ministry center, I thought.
I asked these questions of Angel Feero, Abundant Life’s Elementary Programming Coordinator, whom I knew through Bible Club. Her response surprised me; they already had three raised beds that were not in use! She asked, “Would you lead a gardening project since I have little knowledge of gardening?” I responded, “Yes, provided I can recruit others to help.”
“It is so special when I pose the question, ‘Who do you think made it work this way?’ and a student responds tentatively, ‘God?'”
I enlisted the prayer support of my small group from Trinity Presbyterian Church. One kind friend offered to help and we were off! My husband, Greg, my friend Linda Wenger, and I weeded the beds to prepare for the first day of club. We began June 2 with Angel leading the club and setting the right safety protocols. We had five students for the first meeting and these children chose the kinds of vegetables and herbs which we then planted. Most of these were seedlings.
Watering seeds and watching them grow
We meet every two weeks to watch, weed, and learn, and we have learned a lot. For instance, we found that the sunflower head follows the sun! We have learned that too much rain can bring disease, and how to pick a bean without pulling away half the plant! I have used questions to help the children marvel at how our world is designed. For instance, bugs, worms, and bees each have a necessary role if vegetables are to grow. It is so special when I pose the question, “Who do you think made it work this way?” and a student responds tentatively, “God?”
I have brought books about gardening and read them to the students. These books, though not easy to find, depict children of all shades. This week Kaniah picked up the book Gardening with Lola and wanted to read it to Mary Schnorr, a new volunteer! What a joy to see her active and voluntary participation! I have also brought treats made with ingredients from the garden. When I brought chocolate muffins, the students attempted to guess the ingredients. Some of them were horrified to learn that there was zucchini in the muffin (but they thought it tasted good)!
Reaping a harvest
“While the students have learned about gardening, I have grown in my understanding and love for them.”
To our delight and the enjoyment of our club members the garden has already produced zucchini, summer squash, tomatoes, basil, peppers, and cilantro. In spite of our late start, growth has been startlingly good. Tomatoes are now plentiful as well as peppers. Our two inch sunflower seedling is now over 10 feet tall! Everyone enjoys harvesting the produce, and the students take it home. Between meetings, Linda and I water the plants and attend to details. If I harvest any ripe produce between meetings. I leave it on the picnic table for Angel to distribute to the various families. It is very much a team effort!
While the students have learned about gardening, I have grown in my understanding and love for them. In Bible Club, we often gave time outs to manage challenging behaviors, but while gardening, we have not had to give a single one! The different activities of weeding, harvesting, and caring for the plants allows for small groups of two or three or even one-on-one with a team member, allowing us to build relationships with greater trust and openness. In this intimate setting, I am seeing more clearly who each student is, including Kaniah, in whom I have seen a calmer and more attentive side. It is wonderful to see new sides to them!
Working in the garden as a team with the students brings me joy. We are hoping to harvest plenty of green beans in the coming weeks and then sunflower seeds, pumpkins, and melons in the fall. Just like the plants, we trust God to continue to grow us as well!