Preschoolers  Help with Outreach While Learning to Garden

Date Posted: 5/12/2016

The community garden teaches life lessons to students at the Children’s Development Center at St. Mark’s (Pecore) in Houston.
Beginning as an Eagle Scout project in 2009, the community garden hosted by St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in the Houston Heights has long born the fingerprints of area youth. The garden benefits from the generous support of the Boy Scouts, the Girls Scouts, Urban Harvest, residents and church members but the cutest weekly volunteers come from St. Mark's Children's Development Center.
In fact, in the last seven years, the children, along with more than 70 volunteers who have donated 4,000+ hours have collectively produced 4,000 pounds (two tons) of fruits and vegetables for Heights Interfaith Ministry Food Pantry.  Pastor Emily Chapman says, “At St. Mark's Children's Development Center we serve 50 families with 75 children. Only a few of the families are members of the church. Our members work with the children in the garden once a week to give them lessons about real food, by tasting, planting, weeding, picking, and by digging in the dirt. They also learn that the garden serves others.” Adds Emily, “Vance Neatherly and Nicole Wyman are among the kids’ favorite volunteers. Vance sends great stories and photos from the garden to the parents by email, which is a great outreach to the families since most are not church members.”
Bible Lessons in the Garden
Earlier in the year, “Mr. Vance” explained the parable of the mustard seed to the youngsters. With the bag of seeds he purchased, he made enough mustard to allow the children to taste it, and he supervised them planting the rest to see what happened. “Some of the kids had never heard this Bible story,” he shares, “and they were all excited to plant the seeds – so much so that they dropped piles of them into the dirt instead of spreading them around as I had suggested.”
Vance, who began gardening with his father at age seven, is retired and has spent time with each class each week for the last six years.  “We have a big time together, and I can see several results that follow this garden endeavor – from the children gaining a love of vegetables to the children gaining a love of helping other children who are hungry in Houston through the food pantry.” According to Vance, 40,000 children go to bed hungry every night in the city of Houston. “I have several parents astounded that their child ate raw broccoli or green beans during school, and several who have reported having to plant a garden at home after their child was into elementary school and wanting to continue this hobby.”
Adds Vance, “Many strawberries get consumed on the spot by the kids, the helpers, and the birds, but somehow we managed to donate five pounds of them to the pantry in March.” Other crops include cucumbers, squash, tomato plants, beans, and a couple of kinds of melons.  One of the latest editions is the herb garden featuring the basil, dill, cilantro, and sage. Nicole Wyman is a loyal volunteer alongside Vance because she “loves watching how the children start out a little hesitant in the garden but then embrace eating fresh fruits and veggies plucked from plants and vines.  I hope it becomes a lifelong attachment to eating healthy foods.  It is a thrill to see a child latch onto his or her favorite vegetable in the garden.  Harry loves green beans, Stella munches on onion tops, and Asher can't wait for sugar snap peas.  We have a blast!”
Vance has observed that the children particularly love the sweet potato harvest. “ At first, they did not believe me that the potatoes grew underground. When I unearthed one for the first time they could not wait to play hide and seek for the others.  Their 15-minute attention span quickly darts to racing about and playing, or veggie snack time but they explain gardening to me, from their funny perspective, on a regular basis - now that they are experts.”
Bountiful Outreach
“The garden team members were having a meeting out in the garden awhile back,” shares Vance, “and a bicyclist stopped and asked if she could help us. She’s now a new member of the church.” Others in the neighborhood wander over to help, or come sit at the picnic tables to enjoy the park-like environment, he adds. “We produce about 130 pounds of fresh produce a month which helps feed the 50-80 families that come to the pantry each week, so the garden has many benefits for everyone involved.”