Smells Like Teen Spirit – Environmentors

Teens these days can get a bad rap. I for one, as a mother of younger children, have the odd fear that my kids are going to grow up in world infused with social media mixed messages, over sexed marketing schemes and that whatever the Kardashins are doing is the trend.

Sure the media tends to highlight the worst case scenarios. But what if we start a movement that changes things by highlighting all the teens that are setting out to “be the change they want the world to see”. One of my biggest pet peeves is also this “anti-bullying movement”. Sure this is a good thing to promote “anti-bullying” but we’re still using the word “bullying” and I would rather see a movement that focuses on Kindness, Compassion and Peace and the children who are examples of that.

From the very beginning of the Forest Grove School Garden Project, I have felt that children learn more from other empowered youth and teens who are just slightly older than they are. The garden has allowed an opportunity to let the youth in our community shine. I have witnessed the power of influence when a 14 year old shows a 7 year old how to do something simple like use a drill. And when that 14 year old uses a drill to attach a sign of virtue on to a school garden with the words: “Patience”, “Trust”, “Compassion” or “Forgiveness”, well, you can only hope that some of these virtues seep into their consciousness.

Naming the school garden

Although the Forest Grove School Garden is a project that takes place at an elementary school, I felt it was important to include other generations of students in the project. Not only can the lessons learned in the classroom transcend into nature’s outdoor classroom making them real and effective, there was also a need to include the rest of the school community to ensure the project was a success. If other community members were involved, especially those who were about to graduate from the school and go on to high school, there was less chance of vandalism because there was a sense of ownership and care over the project. Grade 7 students therefore were vital to the build of the school garden.

Working in the school garden
A Grade 7 student getting guidance from our friends at Home Depot who funded the school garden build at Forest Grove.

The student featured in this photo has gone on to programs in the field of trades after his Grade 9 year and now is enjoying an apprenticeship with a construction company. Coincidence? Or did being a part of building the garden spark an interest in him?

Once the garden was built, it was time for the parents and champions of the project to take a step back and hand over some responsibilities to the students themselves as well as reaching out to high school students who might be interested in helping sustain the garden; creating a bridge into the community via the garden. The answer was given to us in the form of an amazing group of teens called the Burnaby Youth Sustainability Network. This is a group that was formed from the passion of two Grade 11 students in 2010. Every month the teens gather together students from all 7 local Burnaby high schools to discuss matters regarding: recycling, water conservation, sustainability, waste management and now, school gardens. They continued to expand this network by evolving a group in Ontario and now there is even a national network of youth for sustainability. They were and still are a natural fit to reach out to.

youth for sustainability

The group has received awards in Environmental Stewardship and Youth Leadership via the City of Burnaby. Just look at them! I’m inspired by how tall and proud they are standing J

Creating the After School Garden Club was the answer to several issues about sustaining a school garden. The Garden Club is a group that is made up of students within the school from K to Grade 7, (K to Gr. 2 students must come with a parent or guardian) to water, weed, harvest and maintain the garden space. Leading this group with various organic methods and principles, I placed myself in charge. But leading a group of sometimes 20 plus students on my own with a handful of parents can also be quite challenging. Enlisting the help of the teens was a natural answer.

Students working in school garden

Teens are given some direction and then asked to help younger students with various duties around the garden like using clippers or cutting down big sunflower stalks in the fall. Watching them work together with the younger students is definitely a sight to behold. There is sometimes a bit of hesitation on both parts but after awhile, the groups find a flow that might only last a few minutes but a connection has been made.

An Outdoor Education Program was another group that we reached out to who responded by helping us with our Fall Harvest and Clean Up. There must have been at least 20 students who came to help with this activity. Although this was an organized after school group lead by a teacher, they still came with enthusiastic hearts and genuinely wanted to help.

Students from the Burnaby Mountain Secondary Outdoor Ed Club who happened to be international students this year as well, helping us out for our fall harvest event.
Students from the Burnaby Mountain Secondary Outdoor Ed Club who happened to be international students this year as well, helping us out for our fall harvest event.

Summertime is also a time during a school garden project that can be a challenge. Who will water the garden over the summer? What do you do with the food that has grown in the garden?

This year like many other years before, I have led various Summer Work Bees with the school community. We have met on Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the summer to tend to the garden space. We have also set up a watering schedule with the parents and families of the Garden Club. Having a list of emails collected from registration forms in the beginning of each year is quite valuable to continue to reach out to families throughout the whole year.

What has been special about this year is that the leader of the BYSN reached out to me in June before school ended to ask if their group could help in any way. Facebook and social media have been our main lines of communication. If you are going to connect with teens, know how they communicate and social media is probably the main method, more so than emailing and second to texting. After reaching out to me via Facebook, I responded with the list of dates for each Summer Work Bee. A few days later, she let me know that after sending the dates out to her group, we now had teen volunteers for each date. Remember, these are teens who may be attending summer school during the summer, have social lives, are meant to be relaxing and lazing around pools but choose to volunteer their time…to garden!  I had a few doubts but because we had already established a relationship with the group itself, seeing the first group of eager teens including the leader herself, for the first Summer Work Bee still warmed my heart.

Summer Work Bee Crew -Salina, Ariel, Alice, Laura, Jeremy and Alexa
Summer Work Bee Crew -Salina, Ariel, Alice, Laura, Jeremy and Alexa

They genuinely want to help in some way even if it’s just watering, weeding, thinning out beets or harvesting kale seeds. I have had 10 different teens arrive on a Saturday morning in the summer from 5 different Burnaby high schools including Burnaby South which is at least 2 or 3 bus rides away from Forest Grove.

Harvesting kale seeds in the shade and lavender in the sun. Many hands make light work…
Harvesting kale seeds in the shade and lavender in the sun. Many hands make light work…

Of course these Work Bees end up going quite quickly with all these extra hands. When there is time left after the “work” is completed, I encourage the teens to ask me questions regarding their own gardens and they do. We’ve discussed composting, what grows well in containers, what can grow all year round and what you should purchase as established plants. There is a genuine curiosity here.

Curiousity for school gardens

I guess my main intention as September creeps ever so close and some of these youth will also be heading off into universities is that this blog reaches them and they feel heard, seen and appreciated. I don’t always get the chance to properly thank them, honor them for what they do and most of all, encourage them not to stop caring for the world we live in, the lives they touch and the difference they are making. By showing up in life, showing up to volunteer with us and maybe only have a brief moment or two with a younger student, they too are planting seeds in the gardens but also in the minds of the younger kids they interact with. Seeds that might grow into an idea that helping the environment is a cool thing to do as is serving the community.

So to Jennifer, Sofiya, Jacqueline, Tomas, Salina, Simon, Ariel, Alice, David, Todd, and numerous others who have shown up in our garden, expressed interest in changing the world, created some amazing events (Do It Green Conference. Check it out. All organized by youth, for youth.), I see you, I honor you and I’m grateful for all you are doing.

~ Ms. Barb

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