The new bounty at Orchards Elementary

School transforms cluttered lot next door into community garden

By Stover E. Harger III, Columbian neighborhood news coordinator

Published:

 

Now Orchards Elementary can live up to its name.

After becoming the school’s new principal last year, Elizabeth Brawley couldn’t help but focus on the clutter just past the parking lot as she drove to and from work. An undeveloped lot next to the school had gone to seed — it was overgrown with invasive blackberry bushes, and piles of debris littered the property, east of I-205 in the Five Corners area.

“It’s the most beautiful school I’ve ever worked in, but getting to the school was strange,” Brawley said. “If I, as a new person coming into the building, think it’s a strange entrance, how does the community feel about it?”

So she started to hatch a plan to breathe new life into the eyesore next door. And now — after many hours of volunteer efforts from hundreds of school employees, families and community members — the school has its own garden classroom.

“How can we have an Orchards without a garden?” fourth-grader David Jensen asked.

Last week, Kadie Warner’s fourth-grade class happily dug in the dirt as they helped further spruce up the burgeoning garden. The plants haven’t come in fully yet, but by the time the kids return to school in September, they’ll have a bountiful harvest of tomatoes, green peas, pepper, cilantro and much more.

“Now we have plants to grow and take home to eat,” fourth-grader Noah Myers said.

Throughout the school year, just as the fourth-graders did on June 4, students will be able to spend time gardening outdoors.

“I’d rather be here than recess,” fourth-grader Josh Kennedy said.

The property was transformed during a busy volunteer day on May 10, where more than 200 helpers built the garden from the ground up. It’s now serving as a place to not only teach kids about the roots of their food, but educate them about nutrition and the importance of contributing positively to the community.

“To look at all those people working together, and such a diverse population that came out to help, it was just amazing to see that many people helping and volunteering their own time for the common good,” Brawley said.

A number of businesses and groups stepped up to donate materials or services for the project, including Lowe’s and Crossroads Community Church. Many teachers and school staff played a role in getting it off the ground, including Toby Ford and Heidi Cooper, who led regular garden committee meetings.

The school has also joined forces with Washington State University Clark County Extension through its Food Sense Nutrition Education Program and its 4-H Youth Development Program. Educators from the WSU Extension will help teach nutrition classes for students as well as cooking classes for parents. And the 4-H program is gathering volunteers to maintain the garden during summer when kids aren’t in school.

“One of our top goals is community involvement,” Brawley said.

The company that owns the property, TMT Development, worked out an agreement for the school to use the land free of charge for the time being.

A few of the many people to help create the garden were Lakhbinder Singh and his wife, Harpal Kaur, who have three kids in the school and felt a strong urge to help once they learned of the project.

“It’s my school,” Singh said.

Kaur made a bunch of food for the hungry helpers during the May 10 work day. And Singh is a truck driver, so he volunteered to haul in a bunch of dirt that was vital to completing the project.

“He just came and saved the day,” said Assistant Principal Amy Grabenkort.

Many families from Orchards live in apartment complexes, known more for concrete and cars than fruit and vegetables. So Brawley believes the new touch of green at Orchards is a welcome addition to the community.

Singh thinks so. It pleases him that his kids now have a special place to learn about, and enjoy, the art of growing their own food.

“I live in an apartment so I don’t have any gardens,” Singh said.

The school also has a large number of low-income families, with 71 percent of its nearly 600 students qualifying for free or reduced-cost lunch, according to state statistics. That’s the highest percentage of students eligible for food assistance than in any other school in the Evergreen Public Schools district.

Parents who are in need of food are welcome to visit the garden and pick ripe items to take home, Brawley said. She said the school may figure out a different way of distributing food, but for now, families are welcome to the bounty as they see fit.