Inner-City Students Put Their Green Thumbs to Work

Text and video by FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Until last fall, the wedge of schoolyard along Reservoir Avenue, partially obstructed by a bus stop shelter, was home to an oak tree that now stands about 7 feet tall, some gritty dirt blotched with green and wind-strewn trash.

This slice of land that runs beneath several classroom windows is now home to a garden that soon will be the envy of many urban farmers.

Since October, five Reservoir Avenue Elementary School students — three third-graders, Samantha, Chantel and Diosy, and two fourth-graders, Mayra and Jamie — under the tutelage of after-school volunteer Christian Nelson, have turned the once-barren patch into a vegetable and fruit garden.

The 10 beds, built out of rocks, wood, logs and/or branches, contain the beginnings of corn, carrots, potatoes, onions, garlic, tomatoes, beans, watermelon, raspberries and strawberries. The students also helped Nelson plant two apple trees.

“These kids never cease to amaze me,” the twenty-something said. “It’s really kind of a little vacation with these kids. They teach me more than I teach them. I know that’s a cliché, but it’s true. Wednesday afternoons are the highlight of my week.”

Nelson’s weeks are hectic. On Mondays, he tends to his own garden down the street from the school. Tuesdays and Thursdays are spent working at the Barden Family Orchard in North Scituate. Fridays he volunteers at the Southside Community Land Trust (SCLT). Saturdays he works at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).

On Wednesdays, from 3-4:30 p.m., he donates his time to teach students the finer points of gardening. As a member of the After School Arts (ASA) program, Nelson has been volunteering at the school for three years. This year, however, Principal Socorro Gomez-Potter easily persuaded Nelson to start a school garden.

He was able to do it, thanks to much community generosity. Rich Pederson, SCLT’s City Farm steward, donated plants. A local company donated a fence and another delivered the compost RISD donated. College students and PTO members helped dig and build the beds. The night janitor, a native of Peru, helped the kids plant the potatoes, corn and carrots.

The students organized a penny drive and collected nearly half of the project’s $250 budget. Nelson, however, didn’t get any help when it came to counting 9,500 pennies. “Someone slipped in a five dollar bill,” he said. “That was big.”

The students also help with watering, weeding and keeping the garden free of ice cream wrappers, potato chip bags and other trash blown into their urban oasis by Mother Nature and passing cars.

The ASA program was started six years ago, and has been working with Reservoir Avenue School students for the past four. The program was “born from a desire to help inner-city youth,” said Andrew Mook, the unofficial leader of the program. The program offers at-risk students tutoring and mentoring help and organizes community renewal projects. Besides teaching kids gardening skills, the after-school program also features a hip-hop class, film class and an urban dance class. Fifty students registered for the program this soon-to-end school year.

“It’s an opportunity to serve the community,” said Mook, who shares an apartment with Nelson and another ASA volunteer, Ryan Gaumond, not far from the South Providence school. “It’s a passion.”

The program runs on an annual budget of $2,500, and, according to Mook, other public schools in the city are looking to duplicate its success.