Twenty minutes away from Woodcrest Mansion and the beautiful spring foliage of Cabrini’s campus is a town that has seen more prosperous days but is fighting to come back.
But in the back of Stewart Middle School in Norristown, a beacon of hope shines bright in a town where struggle is widespread. Seeming to sprout from the blacktop, the green of a community garden has made quite an impact on the students.
“They are responsible for the garden by completing the work, from start of the season to the end,” Cheryl Brumbaugh, school nurse at Stewart Middle school, said. She has been at Stewart for 11 years and is the one who created a project to teach students in this urban environment the joys and responsibilities of a garden.
It may not seem like much, but for the students of Stewart this garden is a safe haven.
“Gardens are quiet places to think to create. Many write poetry or stories, some students draw,” Brumbaugh said. The atmosphere of a peaceful garden is much different from the streets of Norristown.
In reports comparing Norristown to the U.S. average for violent crimes in the past 10 years, Norristown has ranked hundreds above in number of crimes such as murders, assaults and robberies.
In the garden students eat what they grow, in school lunches and also at home with their families. “Many students’ first salad was in the cafeteria,” Brumbaugh said. They do not receive this type of nutritious food at home because it is not accessible.
In the 3.5 square miles that is Norristown, there are no chain or family owned grocery stores. This is referred to as an urban desert, because there are corner stores, ethnic markets and fast food restaurants, but none of them offer the healthy options that a grocery store does. For this reason, most of the children at Stewart do not receive the proper nutrition they need.
“Linking garden and kitchen activities creates a deeper understanding and appreciation of how nature sustains life,” Brumbaugh said, “our cafeteria manager uses whatever she can from the garden in her lunches.” Students enjoy a salad bar with tomatoes from the garden, rosemary roasted potatoes with herbs from the garden, fruit salad with strawberries and melons from the garden and many other dishes using ingredients grown by the students.
“Many urban students are disconnected from where their food comes from,” Brumbaugh said. It is easy to pick up a bag of chips from the corner store but there is no value, nutritional or educational, in that. There is no sense of “I made that,” in a bag of chips.
Last summer, the garden that the students built and maintained for the entire season was destroyed. The school district designated the space where the garden was to be the new home to a giant heating system for the school. Workmen disregarded all of the beautiful artwork and plants that were growing and left nothing but broken birdhouses, shattered mosaics, ripped-up plants and a huge ugly heater two stories high and a third of the area of the garden.
“Everything’s a mess,” Brumbaugh said on the initial visit with Cabrini students to the disaster site. “The students are so disappointed.”
For Brumbaugh, the students in Professor Servey and Dr. McLaughlin’s ECG class this spring, People, Planet, Profit, came to her as an answer to a prayer. After assessing the damage done in the winter chill, the students got right to work on acquiring grant money to rebuild the garden that had been such a blessing to the students.
Lowes Community Improvement Fund felt the need for this garden was so great that a $2,000 grant was given to the group of students to assist Brumbaugh in restoring her pride and joy. The school district, in reparation of what was destroyed, issued a new and larger space to build the garden in. By March, everything was in place for the garden to grow.
When the weather finally got warmer this past month, the group of four students, Christian Keeney, Alexa Milano, Nicole Lawlor and this author traveled to Norristown once a week to help with the physical labor of digging up grass where the soil was going and assembling and aligning plant beds.
As of now the garden is near completion, just in time for many of the warm weather plants to go in the ground after being cultivated in grow lights within the middle school and also here at Cabrini. The Science Club made it part of their semester to begin growing vegetables to plant at the middle school.
“I have a whole tray of peas just waiting to be planted,” Trevor Cross, president of the Science Club, said.
Rewarding does not even begin to describe how it feels to see the new garden literally sprout from nothingness to a beautiful place where students can work and play. The middle school students who have worked with the Cabrini students are so playful and full of life. One little girl named Jackie collected all the worms when the grass was being dug up, enjoyed creeping out her friends with them, and saved them to place in the garden soil once it was laid. “These are good for the plants!” Jackie said, dangling a worm from her soil covered hands.
“What they learn in the garden is teamwork, responsibility, life- long learning experiences such as seed planting, soil preparation, design, and cooperation,” Brumbaugh said. These skills are more valuable than anything they could learn on the streets.
However, it is sad to think where these students might end up if they get caught up in the wrong crowd. According to City Data, only 13 percent of the 25-and-up population of Norristown has a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Statistics like this are not comforting to aspiring middle school students who do not get to see examples of what they should be doing in order to get to college.
“We constantly strive to motivate our students in the direction to at least consider some type of post-graduation schooling if not college than tech school, or vocational school,” Brumbaugh said. One of the ways Stewart does this is through the established partnership with Cabrini. Students from Stewart occasionally take tours of our campus to see what college is like a hopefully inspire them to aspire for their future to take them someplace similar.
Using gardening as the first step to a successful future has set a trend as being a unique and rewarding teaching tool for urban students. Other schools in the district were given grants to begin similar projects. “Personally, it gives me great pride that the students have embraced their school garden,” Brumbaugh said. “They are excited and show great pride in caring for it.”