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Catholic Education

Schools restore God’s garden

Oakland, Calif.

Kyle Williams, 11, loves working in St. Augustine School garden because he gets to chow down on carrots -- just like Bugs Bunny, his favorite cartoon character.

But the fifth-grader has another reason for helping tiny seeds grow into tasty food. “Before he died, my grandpa was a gardener. When I’m out here in the garden with Sr. Pat, it feels like he’s right behind me,” said the bright-eyed youth.

His teacher is not surprised. “On some level, I do think these children experience the presence of God or a loved one when they connect with the natural world,” said Sr. Pat Nagle, co-director of the Oakland parochial school’s gardening program and a member of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. “I was teaching the first grade how to save marigold seeds when one little girl suddenly jumped up on a wood bench and shouted, ‘Sister Pat, I see God.’ ”

It’s been more than a few years since Basilian Fr. Don McLeod was 6, but he readily identifies with the youngster’s view. “For me, God is a northern lake at sunset with a pair of loons calling to each other,” said the principal of Bishop O’Dowd High School.

St. Augustine School and O’Dowd High School are miles across the city from each other, but otherwise they are kindred spirits. If spirits have color, their color is green.

Notions of environmental sustainability and spirituality have taken root in both school curriculums. The elementary version is a collection of raised beds blooming with flowers and vegetables tucked into a corner of an asphalt-covered play yard. The high school project is more extensive -- the eventual total transformation of a barren, water-starved hill, infested with invasive plants, brown patches of dead grass and weeds into a Living Laboratory with a series of ponds, native wildflowers, a grove of redwoods, a meditation and memorial garden, a waterfall, trail system, greenhouse, sculptures, a compost bin and a large vegetable garden.

St. Augustine and O’Dowd schools are among a small but growing number of Catholic schools in the Oakland, Calif., diocese that are bringing principles of ecological consciousness into their classrooms.

Bishop Moreau Catholic High School and St. Elizabeth Elementary School are involved in ambitious recycling and gardening projects.

They do so while, at the national level, the Bush administration continues to take a non-regulatory stance over such important issues as genetically altered food, the depletion of the ozone layer by greenhouse gas emissions, the death of species and rainforests. In these grim times, East Bay students, teachers and parents work at the grassroots level healing small patches of earth, as the White House continues to push for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In doing so, parents, teachers and children hope to change hearts and minds one classroom, one neighborhood at a time. That may be where real reform starts anyway. In the words of Annie Prutzman, director of O’Dowd’s Living Laboratory, it is all about “loving a little piece of land back to life.”

NCR visited each of these havens of environmental consciousness. Like glass jars of pond water exposed to sunlight, new life teems everywhere.

Fruit of their harvest

A group of kindergarteners huddled expectantly around the black compost bin. It was their day to be out in the garden. And to say hello to their friends, the worms that live in the compost. There was a collective intake of breath, as Nagle took the lid off the box. Little hands reached in, gingerly seeking out the wiggly critters. “Oooh, they’re so soft,” one little girl whispered delightedly.

Nagle and her teaching colleague, Notre Dame De Namur Sr. Sharon Joyer, could repeat this ritual every day with the kids, if only they had the time. But the two sisters, the founders of EarthHome, their neighborhood gardening outreach, not only have St. Elizabeth School Garden to think about. They also work next door to the school with kids living at Elizabeth House, a residence for formerly homeless women and their children. The sisters started their garden three years ago with a $1,500 start-up grant from the Alameda County Waste Recycling Board, which provides funds to schools when a compost program is included in the educational curriculum.

Nagle and Joyer hope to one day harvest enough crops for food banks, but right now their kindergarten through fourth-graders enjoy salads and strawberry shortcakes, the fruit of their harvest, during each growing season. Students also take fruits and vegetables home to their families.

Last year, the duo began another garden in downtown inner-city Oakland, at St. Mary’s Senior Center for low-income and homeless seniors. This garden is a collaborative effort between businesses, the East Bay Conservation Corps, schools, nurseries, architects, landscapers, homeless folks and preschool children who attend pre-kindergarten next door to the Center. Both seniors and moppets help plant and harvest. The resulting bounty often ends up as lunch for both groups.

But success has its downside, and for the busy sisters, it results in not enough time to go around, as beginning 5-year-old gardeners and 70-plus elders clamor for more chances to get their hands into the soil. For Nagle, this eagerness is gratifying. They have tapped into EarthHome’s teaching centerpiece -- engendering respect for God’s creation and for all life forms.

There is not enough time or staff at St. Elizabeth Garden of Learning, either. In its four years of existence, the number of participating classes has doubled. Kids would work in the garden every day if they could, said Anne Symens-Bucher, founding director.

Crops for the food bank

St. Elizabeth’s garden began in 1998 at the behest of Symens-Bucher, director of the Justice, Peace and Integrity Office of the Franciscan Friars of the St. Barbara Province, with startup funds from the community, foundation grants and private donations. It has three goals -- to reduce hunger and malnutrition in Oakland’s Fruitvale community, a largely Latino neighborhood, and to foster ecological literacy and social awareness among elementary school children. Kids harvest their crops for Bread and Roses, the parish food bank, said Karin Morris, who co-directs the garden with Catherine Webb. Students cultivate the seeds, care for the plants as they grow, harvest them, wash the vegetables and fruits, bag them and take their produce to the food bank.

Hymens-Bucher, a mother of five and a home gardener who volunteered at a Catholic Worker House in 1977, brought her vision to the Franciscans after reading how gardening in jails and schools was transforming lives. Upgrading people’s diets was a major part of her plan. “The poor always get the worst-processed food.”

Peter Milano, a parishioner who had once lived next door, gave the Franciscans a five-year lease on his family’s land. But a soil analysis uncovered lead, mercury, arsenic and other toxins. Symens-Bucher faced a major challenge -- how to get rid of 40 tons of dirt. “It took us a year to figure out what to do with the garden site,” said Morris.

Having the dirt dumped at a toxic waste site in Central California would have cost $15,000. So they consulted experts about safe and more budget-conscious solutions. Then, with the help of parent volunteers, the garden staff hauled the dirt to the back of the lot, creating a two-foot high area blocked off from where the plants would be. They covered the 40 tons with four inches of decomposed granite and sealed off the site with recycled wood chips.

Work parties brought in new soil. Students began planting. Today hardy winter crops like broccoli and chard flourish. A border along the fence features wheat grass “to teach kids where their bread comes from,” said Webb.

An herb garden surrounded by an artifact wall occupies the center of the garden. The students built the wall from cement, mortar, lime and water, and decorated it with rocks, glass beads, toys or other personal mementoes. Last spring, Morris and Webb taught the kids how to build a winsome brown dragon bench from a substance known as cob -- a combination of earth, straw, clay and water.

Later this spring, the garden will bloom with herbs, flowering bulbs, figs, raspberries, strawberries, sunflowers, lettuce, beans and peas. Last fall, when the kids returned to school, a bumper crop of tomatoes awaited. So Webb and Morris organized salsa-making (and eating) parties for each class. “We had enough tomatoes to make salsa for 500 kids over a two-week period,” said Webb. Kids scooped up their culinary creations with the delicious help of organic blue corn chips.

There’s no holds barred on imagination in the Garden of Learning. To teach about conscious sustainability as opposed to mindless consumerism, the team found a local woman who has an herbal products business. She taught the kids how to make salves and soaps from the garden’s lemon verbena, lavender and thyme. Then they made labels and sold the salves as a fundraiser for the garden.

The products were an instant hit with parishioners. They sold out. So did the homemade paper. To drive home the realization that harvesting trees to make paper is causing serious deforestation on the planet, Webb and Morris taught kids how to make their own beautiful, thick, colorful paper. The recipe included recycled paper from the Franciscan office’s shredding machine, scraps of colored paper from classrooms, seeds, plants and flower petals, water, blenders and screen wire drying frames.

After this paper is used, it can be planted. The seeds will grow, explained Symens-Bucher. Leftover paper will be turned into Mother’s and Father’s Day cards, as another fundraiser for the garden.

Other big plans include building a pond later this spring, and initiating a salad bar one day a week in the school lunch program next fall.

The salad bar piece comes out of a concern for the growing epidemic of child obesity, explained Webb, who believes the problem goes back to the inroads of fast food chains in school cafeterias (not at St. Elizabeth) and the popularity of sedentary video games. “A recent Los Angeles school district study showed that kids who work in school gardens eat better,” said Symens-Bucher.

Student Cecilia Nguyen expressed similarly thoughts. In an essay, Cecilia expressed her gratitude to the staff by saying, “You have made me realize that plants and food taste better homemade.”

The Garden of Learning has attracted national notice. It won a competitive award from the National Gardening Association in December 1999, and in January 2000 received a $20,000 grant from the Unbroken Chain Foundation, founded by former Grateful Dead guitarist Phil Lesh. Much of Symens-Bucher’s time is spent in grant writing. “For a successful school garden, you have to have a paid staff on board.”

Earth healers

When Fr. Don McLeod, principal at Bishop O’Dowd High School, needed to decide between the go-ahead for the construction of a badly needed parking lot or to opt for a Living Laboratory, “it was a no-brainer.” He OK’d the laboratory. The vision of restoring a badly neglected part of the campus into an oasis of biodiversity in the midst of the city was irresistible. As a youth, McLeod had served in the Canadian version of the Boy Scouts. During college he worked at a wilderness camp for youth near Toronto.

McLeod’s arrival at O’Dowd two years ago from a campus ministry position in Saskatchewan couldn’t have been timelier. Among the school faculty was a pair of environmental science teachers with a vision. Tom Tyler and Annie Prutzman had drawn up plans for the Living Laboratory on a long-neglected part of the campus. Through the years, it had been used as a bike run and a dog run, had become the victim of an arsonist’s fire and, in recent months, was used as a dump for tons of dirt that had been excavated to build a theater. The dirt pile would have been the perfect place for an expanded parking lot.

But instead of cars in rows, Tyler and Pressman saw a riot of native wildflowers, newly planted trees, ponds, meditation gardens, a laboratory teaching site, and the return of wild birds and small animals to a healed natural habitat. Prutzman said they saw the opportunity for the O’Dowd community “to create something beautiful” in their our own backyard, to heal a small part of the beleaguered planet, and to “leave a legacy that will last long beyond” their brief time here. They saw the possibility of English students sitting in a meditation garden, writing original poetry, science students working out problems on-site, future graduates going on to become earth healers doing environmental restoration.

Tyler and Prutzman’s collaboration turned out to be one of those miracles about which, in retrospect, one says “Yes, of course!” In 1998,Tom Tyler was tired of teaching full-time. The longtime faculty member (he’s been at O’Dowd for 20-some years) wanted to stay home with his two young children. But he needed somebody to take over some of his teaching duties. Then at a Christmas party, hosted by his wife’s workplace, Tyler met Annie Prutzman, an environmental filmmaker. She was married to Mrs. Tyler’s boss. Tyler invited Prutzman to bring some of her films on deforestation in Borneo, Mexico and Brazil to show to his classes.

The students loved her. She loved them. Tyler arranged for her to be offered a part-time job teaching environmental science. Prutzman eagerly accepted. It couldn’t have been a better match. Prutzman holds a degree in environmental science from the University of California at Berkeley. On Earth Day of 1970, she helped clean up the “completely dead” Providence River in Rhode Island. Today the water sparkles with life and health, and there are greenbelt areas surrounding it. “The earth is my lifelong passion,” said Prutzman, who also has worked as a naturalist at Marin Headlands and Point Reyes National Seashore in Northern California.

Unlike the tiny piece of neglected landscape outside Tom Tyler and Annie Prutzman’s classrooms, Marin and Point Reyes are live, vibrant ecosystems. So how could “this dear little parcel of land be brought back to life?” Tyler asked, when he spoke at a faculty meeting last year.

Every time Tyler looked out his window, he heard the land “trying to tell me not to forget us, the real world out here.” For both Tyler and Prutzman, the ideal environmental teaching situation is to “dissolve the walls of this room and go outside.” Find out why the bees return each spring with the blossoming of the cherry trees. Discover why the hawk lingers outside on the windowsill.

As she goes about the business of environmental restoration, Prutzman remembers the words of the late David Brower, one of the fathers of the modern environmental movement.

He said, “This is the only earth we have. … Learn anew what compassion is. Progress is not about subduing the earth, but is the search for truth, for a reverence for life, celebrating the wildness within our songs.”

Some years earlier, in 1995, the world of academia had supplied a much-needed boost to Tyler’s dream. The College Board had said that O’Dowd could create a college-prep environmental science class.

Prutzman and her expertise made it possible.

Two years ago, Tyler and Prutzman began brainstorming in earnest. As the Jubilee 2000 Year approached, they saw the Living Laboratory as a way of making amends. “This land says, ‘We’re willing to forgive the debt you owe us and turn it into something beautiful,’ ” said Tyler. Last year, after involving their classes in work on the property, they brought together faculty, students and parents for visioning sessions about what they would like to see as part of the laboratory.

They recruited an environmental architectural firm in Berkeley eager to provide pro bono work to get the laboratory going. Todd Jersey and a member of his team spoke to the faculty meeting last year with Tyler and Prutzman. A student-produced video chronicled the healing, which had already begun. The presenters received a standing ovation --“probably unheard of at any faculty meeting, ever,” Prutzman said with a grin.

This past September Prutzman was hired fulltime to coordinate the Laboratory Project and to teach a senior-level class in environmental restoration. It’s not a cozy sit-at-your desk type of session. Students dig swales to channel water, plant trees, pull weeds and clear trails. Bringing water back to the surface is key to the rebirth of the land, explained architect Todd Jersey. “We’ve hypermanaged water to death, pushing it under asphalt and sidewalks.” Jersey said he suspected the Living Laboratory would be a “go when he discovered a tiny trickle of water dripping from a drainpipe near one of the school buildings. When he saw an indigenous willow tree on the property, he knew for sure.

Willows only live where there is a water supply, he said.

Even when the water supply comes from above in the form of rain, work continues on the laboratory. Keli Gebhart, an 18-year-old senior, remembers last fall, when she spent several class sessions digging weeds in the drizzle. Yes, it was tedious, she admits, but the long-term results were worth the chilly, muddy effort. “It has made me much more aware of the environment, of how beautiful God’s earth is. I see how a few people can transform something back into beauty.”

Keli added that the Living Laboratory has “helped the morale of the whole school.” People can look up on the hill and see trees, grass, flowers, where before there was a virtual wasteland, she said.

And as for her teacher, Annie Prutzman, “she’s Mother Nature herself,” said Keli.

Toxin in the body of Christ

Last spring, when a large group of community activists gathered at a medical waste incinerator for a prayer vigil, banners calling for its closure were plentiful.

One in particular, however, stood out. “Dioxin is a toxin in the body of Christ.”

The banner belonged to a student at Father Moreau High School in Hayward, Calif., a suburb near Oakland. More than 100 students and faculty from the school took part in that rally. They were putting into practice “the greening of Moreau,” an ongoing journey into ecological awareness and activism.

A few months earlier, the entire school took part in a daylong series of consciousness-raising activities about the plight of the earth. A group of dancers told the story of creation, and its subsequent ecological defilement by a greedy human species. They watched a video that spelled out what young people are doing around the world to save the earth. Student facilitators gave them basic lessons in how to recycle. When the young people filed out of their classrooms, they saw recycling bins in every hallway.

The bins had arrived from the Alameda County Waste Reduction program. The program awards small stipends and grants to schools to launch recycling programs. About 20 schools are participating, said Amy Armstrong, a theology student who has guided the greening program at Moreau High School since its inception.

Now into its second year, the “green Moreau” program is like a river with many tributaries. Environmental sensitivity is worked into theology, science, English and language classes.

For example, the Ecology Club staged a surprise waste audit in classrooms, to check out recycling bins. The classrooms with bins brimming over received prizes.

One English teacher has assigned her American Literature class to read Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th-century nature writers. They are keeping journals about their experience. They recently made posters from recycled paper, featuring the renowned writers’ quotations.

Students taking part in an in-service learning program have participated in beach cleanups, collecting six large trash bags full of refuse.

Advanced-placement Spanish students are working to develop Spanish language educational pamphlets about recycling to raise awareness in the Latino community.

On the second anniversary of the “greening of Moreau” kickoff, students brought all their half-used spiral notebooks to school. The Spanish and French classes covered them with brown paper bag covers, and then decorated them with pictures from National Geographic Magazine. They wrote greetings in Spanish and English, “Children are the Future. From Our Heart to Your Heart.” The notebooks, accompanied by pens, glue sticks and colored pencils, will go to children in Holy Cross Fathers’ schools and orphanages in Chile, Brazil and Bangladesh. “Paper is a rare and precious gift for poor children,” said Armstrong.

Armstrong said that Buddhism has strongly influenced her sensitivity to earth issues. Mindfulness of the interconnection of all beings is key to cultivating compassion for them, she said. Integrating the “engaged Buddhism” of Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hahn with her Catholicism has “illuminated my understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.”

Discipleship in Northern California’s Bay Area definitely leans toward the “green.”

Sharon Abercrombie writes from the San Francisco Bay area.

National Catholic Reporter, March 22, 2002