Beaver Valley IU 27: Garden grows with life lessons for special-needs students

Can students who are first-time gardeners actually harvest a sweet potato so large that even a Master Gardener had never seen anything like it?

For special-needs students at Beaver Valley IU 27, the answer is yes. Through a serendipitous alignment of IU and community resources, life-skills students learned about teamwork and food production, while community members came into direct contact with motivated students who are driven to succeed.

The project started when BVIU’s Transition program was offered plots in a Penn State Extension’s community garden reserved for senior citizens and community groups. On hot June days, students planted seeds for zucchini, sweet potatoes, beans, pumpkins, and other vegetables.
Before long, they were thrilled to watch their garden grow, and family members were bringing their children to tend the garden in the summer. Throughout, students were learning valuable lessons about food production, even if it meant discovering that their zucchini had died in the oppressive summer heat.

“None of them really knew how food grows,” said vocational preparation teacher Rene Fencil. “This gave them a holistic approach to where our food comes from and the painstaking things it takes to grow it. They were missing that part of the food cycle.” 

Local Penn State Master Gardeners shared time and expertise, teaching students to plant, water, and weed. Gardeners from neighboring plots readily offered to help, which exposed the students to a variety of people, said Fencil. Many commented on how well-behaved the students were.

“It’s good for the general public to see our students in action, working and using the skills they have attained,” said Fencil. “They want to work. They want to be functional and this was the perfect venue to do it.”

The fall harvest yielded 100 pounds of sweet potatoes, including that 9.7-pound behemoth.

“The project just blossomed,” Fencil said. “It takes a team to plant a garden. Everybody had a job and everybody did their job. We have a lot of little green thumbs here.”

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