Volunteers help students with disabilities master the art of gardening at UMFS in Richmond

Posted at 6:15 PM, May 06, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-06 18:15:48-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- May is National Volunteer Month and volunteers at UMFS, a nonprofit that provides residential treatment, foster care, and private day school for children with disabilities, have been hard at work helping children set up their own garden and 'edible forest.'

Soon it'll be harvest time and both the campus cafeteria and children's families will reap the bounty of their efforts.

"I put in the entire bag," exclaimed a young boy, proudly gesturing at the potting soil-covered planting bed.

"The first question that you ask students who don't know anything about gardening is, 'What do you like to eat? What would you like to grow?' said Julia Marano, a volunteer, who in her retirement from civil engineering spends many of her days on the UMFS campus.

"So can I start putting the seeds in?" asked one child.

"They get excited, and they tell me things like, 'Oh, this is fun. Oh, I never knew that. Oh, we like the idea.'" Marano said. "They get excited about the idea of things that they can walk around and they can eat."

Building a garden is always rewarding. But for some 40 children in a new program at UMFS's Charterhouse, their on-campus day school, those rewards go beyond simply eating the fruits of their labor: their soon-to-be food forest provides daily lessons in science, but also in cooperation and especially, community.

"Mix these two together, and put some sunflowers here and here," Murano told several children, pointing the way.

"It gives them a way to connect with other students that is a concrete process, and has an end result," she said. "They like that."

Marano carefully leads the students through each step in the selecting, designing, planting and harvesting processes.

"That's too deep," she said to one child, helping him reset a small flower.

"We put together this whole list, and we pared down their wish list into what actually would grow here," Marano said. "They all said, 'Oh, we want to be able to walk out our door and pick something to eat.' I said, 'Okay, how about raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, and edible flowers?' Their eyes lit up. They said, 'Yes!' So we're going to be doing that."

Last week Marano also led a dozen UMFS volunteers lending their labor in starting the hillside section of the garden.

The impact of this 'outside' work on these children, some of whom are in foster care, is clear to their mentors 'inside,' in the classroom.

"Oh, I did it!" said one young girl, after a hole was successfully filled with seed and covered with dirt.

"It gives them an opportunity to be successful. You know, our kids haven't had a lot of opportunities in life," said Patrick Gill, an English teacher at the school. "And secondly, it gives them an opportunity to be part of a group. So they get to work with all these great volunteers, and as you can see, they're having a great time. They've been out here [despite the heat] for a couple hours."

Gill said he saw a difference right away in the classroom.

"Handing a kid a worksheet and saying, 'Let's do this together,' is difficult, but saying, 'Hey, let's go outside, plant this seed, water it, have some fun together,' is easy," said Gill. "That's when you can have more conversations, and they kind of open up a little bit. And so you can definitely see the difference the next day in class after you had fun gardening."

Marano pointed out where the bounty would soon be visible: "Peppers, and yellows squash here, we put in green beans in here and carrots in here," she said.

And for all the fun they all have in the garden, Marano points out that plenty of real learning is going on.

"After we decided where everything was going to go, I said to the students, 'Now we need to determine what the soil is like in each of those places.'" said Marano. "So I taught them how to do a soil test. We shipped them off to Virginia Tech's lab, and they gave us the soil result. I just got the soil test results back, so we're going to be looking at what do we need to add to the soil. If you want to plant fruit trees, if you want to plant a vegetable garden, if you want to plant flowers, what do we need to add to each soil composition? So they're learning not just about what they want, but a little bit more of the science behind it, too."

As to what a volunteer like Marano, a retiree whose life passion is growing things, gets from her efforts, the answer is pretty clear:

"That's like asking, what does a singer get out of singing a song? Or what does a painter get out of making a painting or an artist doing a work of art? Because to me, this is my art. This is my connection to the world around me, and it is my art. It is so much. I think if I couldn't do this, I'm not sure what I would do. I'm really not sure what I would do."

And when one of her young charges proclaimed, "I'm the gardener!" Marano could not hide her smile.

Marano said the students were most excited by telling the cafeteria staff that they would be helping provide fruits and vegetables.

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