Unsurprisingly, recent school shootings have brought public safety into the national spotlight. Along with the tragedy came back memories of my own, ones imprinted by school violence. As a young 5th grader, I survived a violent knife attack made by another student. The two kids involved in the provocation didn’t go to juvenile detention or prison, and they ended up staying in the same school system with me. Fortunately, they grew up to become upstanding adults with families, receiving a second chance and my forgiveness. I credit nature as my healer.
Remembering the importance nature played in my own life while discovering forgiveness, I’ve gathered a few examples illustrating how youths’ inner pain and anger can be successfully redirected through gardening and farming. For those living in an urban setting, a reconnection with soil can become a critical means of keeping kids positively engaged within society, channeling their anger into a positive activity.
One example of the power of nature is found at John Muir High School’s Muir Ranch, a farm dedicated to building happy, creative, and entrepreneurial kids. Located in a section of Northeast Pasadena where 80% of the kids qualify for free to reduced cost school lunches, John Muir High School began an innovative farming program as a small scale space for food production under the direction of retired teacher Doss Jones. Muir Ranch blossomed into a larger experience under the enthusiastic direction of LAUSD garden resource specialist, Matthew “Mud” Baron. Volunteers and paid students of Muir Ranch now grow flowers for arrangements, wedding bouquets, and even for the Rose Parade Floats and the Arroyo Seco Music Festival. At John Muir High, students like Manny Garcia learned how to run a creative and profitable business, while also acquiring powerful relaxation techniques applicable across his lifetime.
“I was getting in trouble regularly at school and was told I was failing and wasn’t going to graduate. I was referred to this agriculture class to get an easy A and boost my GPA, but I really liked it, and Mud taught me everything I know. I like that this is peaceful, and lets me get away from the usual routine I have at home. I love how the flowers don’t talk back. It’s relaxing.” – Manny Garcia, a student who began working at Muir Ranch in 2013
Unfortunately, Muir Ranch is scheduled for termination at the end of March. Mud and Doss have likely inspired numerous students like Manny. Sure horticulture is work, but growing beautiful flowers and edible fresh food is a richly rewarding activity…one incredibly ideal for sharing across social media, too!
Another example is Shyaam M. Shabaka’s EcoVillage, located in a troubled part of Richmond, California. Shabaka set up not just one, but eight community gardens and a nature trail operated by kids and young adults!
Jordan High School in Watts, CA presents a relatively new landscape designed by AHBE Landscape Architects and was installed over a year ago in the center of its public campus. The campus operates as a school and also as a lively after-hours local community center in a neighborhood with a national reputation for greater-than-average number of violent crimes.
We are all very curious about how the landscape is holding up. Landscapes, like classrooms, require support and maintenance. Many of these outdoor spaces are now extension of the classroom. Where once no landscape existed, new garden facilities now require care, maintenance, and operation of very technical irrigation systems. More time may be necessary after installation to educate the staff how to care for these living learning spaces so they may thrive for years to come for all to enjoy and learn even more about our natural surroundings.
Teaching kids how to farm or work with nature is a powerful and effective technique for calming body and mind. But as school budgets tighten and ancillary programs are cut to maintain standards in reading, writing, and mathematics, it will become even more important for parents and community members to become vocal advocates of music, arts, and even the science of horticulture for children to supplement their core education. Their local efforts today may one day bring us the next Oscar winning actor, Disney Hall pianist, award winning landscape architect, or maybe an important figure in food culture tomorrow.