Lillian Blank, 13, said when she found out that she and her classmates would be learning to garden as part of the GreenMount School’s Exploration Program she wasn’t sure what to expect.
Blank, a Towson resident, had never gardened before, and said she didn’t know what to be prepared for, and wasn’t too fond of the bugs found in the garden. But once she was able to start with the lesson she found that growing food was something she enjoyed.
"It’s a fun thing to do, like providing for yourself, it gives you some self satisfaction, like 'whoa look at how much I’ve done.' And to know it's going to a good place like Paul’s Place makes me feel good inside," Blank said.
This school year, with the help of grants, the school has been able to expand from four gardens that it has always kept, to nine full gardens for each class to tend. The food is then grown, harvested and taken to the Paul’s Place community support center in Washington Village/Pigtown.
Eighth grade students also make three trips a year to Paul’s Place to volunteer at the center.
Fletcher McNeil, the service learning coordinator, said the project’s roots go back a few years to when the school recognized part of its mission as going beyond its walls and helping in the wider community. In response to that McNeil started a seventh and eighth grade service learning program that not only addresses social justice issues, but also how to empower kids to do something about those problems.
McNeil then spent the next year searching for programs to partner with the school. That turned out to be harder than expected because so many programs want volunteers that are at least 16 years old, and GreenMount School only goes up to eighth grade.
"Paul’s Place three years ago just opened their arms to us and we’ve had a partnership with them for the last three years," McNeil said.
He said so far the program has exposed kids to some of the topics they address within school walls, but also teaches them to overcome some of the fears or misconceptions they have about people in need.
"The van rides back are the most joy—I mean they feel really positive about themselves—they’re like 'oh all this worry, they’re just people, they’re really nice people.' They’re always surprised how many people say thank you," McNeil said.
Beyond breaking down some of his students’ assumptions, McNeil also hopes that students come away feeling empowered, and that they can make a difference.
"What I hope is A.) to empower kids that they can make a difference, I think that sometimes you look at the problems of homelessness, or you look at the problems of hunger and it seems so large, but what I want kids to know is that you can make a difference in somebody else’s life, and you can directly make a difference in someone else’s life," McNeil said.