Students at the Pike County Boys & Girls Club spent part of their summer break planting seeds, experimenting with celery stalks and learning about nutrition with Troy University’s Office of Civic Engagement.
One afternoon a week from June 7 to July 13, student volunteers, AmeriCorps VISTAs and Lauren Cochran, coordinator of Civic Engagement, spent a few hours teaching children the basics of gardening and providing hands-on activities that got their hands dirty.
Cochran said talking about plants’ needs and the importance of good soil gave them the opportunity to talk about how to properly take care of their own bodies.
“We talked about how our bodies need the proper nutrients and vitamins and water, how our bodies need to be cared for just as we’re caring for the plants,” she said. “While we’re learning about gardening and foods that are good for us, we’re also learning how to take care of ourselves.”
After the first session, Cochran said her team learned they’d have to approach the summer classes differently than their academic programs during the school year. Instead of focusing on the science, the goal is to foster relationships so all types of learning can take place.
“In that environment, it’s more about echoing what they’re learning in the classroom and giving them a place to apply that knowledge, but in the summer it’s more about building relationships,” she said. “We give them an opportunity to dig in the dirt and get their hands dirty, but gardening gives us so many comparable life lessons to teach, too.
“Gardening teaches them patience, and it’s so rewarding because they get to see the literal fruit of their work and being responsible for something. It encourages them to think about the long-term and being susceptible to outside influences and your environment.”
The Summer Garden Program is backed by Hunger Free America and the AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers. VISTA members serve organizations across the United States by helping staff local organizations, expanding their ability to work in their communities.
“The VISTA program has really increased our capacity to help,” Cochran said. “They’re able to move so many of our initiatives in ways that we’re not able to do without them. We’re very appreciative of this partnership.”
Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, stopped by the campus for a visit on June 28 as part of his southeastern tour. He’d previously visited VISTA volunteers in New Hope, Ala. and Birmingham, Ala., but said he looks for any reason to drop by the hometown of John Lewis, former member of the United States House of Representatives and a civil rights activist.
This was Berg’s second visit to the Troy Campus.
“We particularly seek out places like this, rural places, that may have more difficulty partnering with a national program,” he said. “TROY does such a great job here and is so engaged, really a model of a civic engagement department that makes such great use of our VISTAs, so any time I get to come here I’ll take it. John Lewis is one of my heroes, so anything I can do to help honor his hometown, I’ll go out of my way to do it.”
Anaiya Henderson of Elba, Ala., is one of the VISTA volunteers. She’s also an incoming transfer student for the fall semester and will major in social work.
“My role as an AmeriCorps VISTA is to help teach the children about gardening and also to research ways to help the community,” she said. “I picked Troy University because, to me, it is a wonderful school and a great program that I think will benefit me in the future.”
Additional initiatives the VISTAs will provide help with is creating a food pantry for TROY’s students and preparing backpacks of dry and canned goods for local children this summer.
The Office of Civic Engagement exists to meet both community and individual needs as well as participate in youth development, Cochran said. The office has multiple partnerships with local schools to promote learning and discussion-based mentoring, but also aims to equip students for active citizenship.
“We hope that through our service here locally and our initiatives in youth development that college students from TROY will fall in love with ways that they can participate and be active in their own communities,” she said. “Any time we’re able to expose the youth in our community to college students, we want to be able to do that. Troy University is right here. We want to build a bridge and encourage and inspire youth to pursue their futures here.”