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WILL Grow project teaches Gompers students link between gardening, healthy eating - Oct. 10, 2014

County Exec Letterhead -Tammy ReiherOctober 10, 2014



WILL Grow project teaches Gompers students link between gardening, healthy eating

JOLIET – Learning isn’t always done neatly at a desk with books and papers. Sometimes learning happens with soil, sun, water, and by getting dirty hands.

Just ask the students in the Life Skills and ABC classes at Gompers Junior High. Thanks to collaboration between Will County, the Regional Office of Education, District 86, and Gompers which created the initial We WILL Grow School and Community Garden Project, they now know the answer.

Kathy Pecora, Grant Assistant in the Will County Resource Recovery and Energy Division of the County’s Land Use Department, said she and RRE Manager Dean Olson presented the idea of a school garden to Regional Superintendent of Schools Sean Walsh and members of the Regional Office of Education.

Pecora said, “We wanted to construct a garden at a school with at least 50 percent subsidized meals for students, a summer foods program, and located in a food desert, and Gompers met that criteria. Walsh’s office put me in contact with Gompers Principal Connie Russell and a great working partnership began.”
Gomper JHS GardenStudents at Gompers Junior High in Joliet planted the first garden as part of the initial We WILL Grow School and Community Garden Project. Students grew a variety of tomatoes, squash, onions and even some pumpkins in the courtyard of the schools. County volunteers built and filled the raised bed gardens with soil. (Photo courtesy of Will County Land Use Department)

Four raised 4-foot-by-5-foot garden beds were constructed by volunteers Joe Pecora and Kent Brunner.

Brunner donated both time and materials to the project.

Intern Kevin Wayne also assisted with the project, helping fill the lined garden beds with 230 40-pound bags of a top soil and mushroom compost mixture from Touch of Green in Homer Glen. The plants came from Lange’s Farm in Elwood.

Costs that weren’t covered by donations came from the County’s solid waste fund.

“This garden was never intended to supply food to the school for use in the cafeteria,” said Pecora. “Its purpose was to illustrate that it’s possible to grow food in an area that most people may not consider for a garden, to show them that food comes from our soil and not our grocery stores.”

Pecora also taught the students to grow herbs in six plastic pots with a 16-inch diameter and 18 inches tall.

They arranged the cilantro, basil and parsley so as they grew they looked like centerpieces, and they also learned the difference in the herbs’ tastes.

Summer learning

Gompers’ Russell said eight students in the Life Skills program, which consists of students with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities, and staff cared for the garden over the summer, weeding and watering the beds.

The summer project fit in with the goals of the program, which include developing self-awareness and self- management skills to achieve school and life success, and demonstrating decision-making skills and responsible behavior in personal, school, and community contexts.

The ABC (Academic Behavior Communication) class has similar goals. The six students in that program took over the project when school started, Russell said.

“The students had a great time tending to the garden and harvesting the crops,” the principal said.  “It gave the students the opportunity to try vegetables that they had never experienced before.

“They harvested a variety of tomatoes and peppers, yellow squash, and onions, but the favorite were the cucumbers.  Students would slice the cucumbers and take them with them to lunch.”

Pecora said the students shared with the rest of the school, putting out vegetables and dip on one occasion.

A staff member took vegetables and cilantro home to make salsa for the students, as well.

“Kathy Pecora did a great job educating students and staff at Gompers on the benefits of eating healthy foods and taught students about plants and gardening,” said Russell. “Many of our students live in apartments or in areas where a garden may not be an option.  Kathy also taught the students about container gardening and showed them how they can garden in a small space.”

While students enjoyed much of the fruits of their labor, they also helped a local charitable organization.

Pecora said 90 percent of the collard greens harvested were donated to Morning Star Mission.

County involvement

RRE’s Olson said while some may question the County’s involvement in teaching students to garden, the project dovetails into the 2012 Energy and Conservation Plan. “We’re trying to promote locally grown and bought food. The energy savings is phenomenal if you buy locally because items don’t have to be shipped.”

In addition, the Regional Office of Education is involved and there is a Health Department component since Olson and Pecora also looked at the instance of chronic preventable illnesses in the school, such as type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and obesity, when choosing Gompers for the pilot project.

Students are still enjoying their harvest. While most of the veggies are gone, there are pumpkins which they grew, decorated and now are displaying in the cafeteria.

Russell said, “I am not sure if Kathy and her volunteers fully comprehend how much the gift of the Gompers vegetable and herb gardens means to the students and staff. The garden project is profoundly appreciated!”

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