The following is a Q&A with two young women from the Iowa Community Health AmeriCorps Program (ICHAP). They spent their summer coordinating garden programs for elementary and middle school students with Des Moines Public Schools.
Healthiest State Initiative: You two are both AmeriCorps members working with the Des Moines Public Schools garden programs this summer. Could you go into more detail about what you spent your time doing?
Thomata Doe: We worked with the Starfish Program, which is through the YMCA, and they’re spread out over different elementary schools. So the kids will come out for about two hours and we’ll switch into different groups. What I do, with the help of Kori and another AmeriCorps member, is plan activities that are garden-related for the kids to participate in.
Kori Ponder: Sometimes we’d teach the kids garden maintenance techniques, you know, like how to pull weeds or how to plant something, or how to water effectively. We had to teach them that instead of sprinkling water all over the leaves of the plant you have to water at the base – stuff like that that’s important for them to move on going forward. There were also themes for every week of Starfish, so sometimes we’d have activities related to that.
HSI: What was most enjoyable for you two while working with the garden programs this summer?
Kori: I felt like the fun part was planning the curriculum of what we were going to do with the kids, and then getting there and having everything all ready but having the kids be crazy and all out of control and not wanting to do it and having to come up with something else on the fly. That was valuable experience for me that I can take with me wherever I go during and after school.
Thomata: I think obviously watching the kids grow and surprise themselves a little bit was very enjoyable. Seeing kids learn and grow for the better is always a great thing.
HSI: What surprised you most while coordinating the programs and working with the kids?
Thomata: It’s really interesting how much the kids retained from what we taught them. We’d have one lesson planned, for example, about the different parts of the plants. Like the carrot’s the root, broccoli is the flower – lessons like that. And then when they switch to a different station they’ll actually tell the instructors, “Hey, this is the root of a plant!” and it’s really nice to know that they actually learn something from what we do – what we’ve been teaching them. And it’s easy to imagine these kids going home to their parents and siblings and repeating all the same information and showing an interest in gardening and, little do they know, science!
Kori: Just to add on to what Thomata said, we talked to kids about pollinators and things like that. We taught them about bees and moths and butterflies. I didn’t really learn that stuff until I was older so it was fun to introduce them to it now at a young age, and it was definitely surprising how well they latched onto that knowledge and ran with it.
HSI: Obviously the Iowa Community Health AmeriCorps Program is aimed at making Iowa and its communities healthier. Do you guys see your specific program helping achieve that goal?
Kori: I definitely think it’s helping improve the health of Iowans. For instance, on our last day of the program, we were able to harvest a lot of things. We were able to give every kid a pepper, or some tomatoes, or some cabbage, and they were able to bring it home to their families. I remember just last week I was at a different program and one of the girls was from King [Elementary School] and she told me, “Oh yea my mom cooked that cabbage and it was so good!” I was like “yea, that’s awesome.” So I know it actually went to good use. Another activity we did was have them write down on paper why they liked gardening. A couple of them wrote down that it made them feel safe. Healthy eating made them feel good. That’s so awesome to hear and makes you realize how important it is to have access to healthy foods.
Thomata: I agree! A grandma and her granddaughter came to us and the grandmother said, “Thank you so much for what you’re doing. Because of your program, we have a garden in our backyard.” The little girl kept naming all of the fruits and vegetables they were growing. That’s sort of when I knew it was really making a difference. It makes me want to have a garden, too, to be honest. I feel like with the continuation of this program, I think more progress will be made within the students. There’s a kid who I met - I asked him what his favorite vegetable was and he said, “Donuts”. So then another AmeriCorps member encouraged him to eat a spaghetti squash. He said, “No, I hate this stuff. I’m not gonna try it.” When he actually tried it, he loved it! When they grow peppers, they’ll eat it no matter how hot it is. Just having that hands-on experience encourages them to eat any vegetable or fruit.
Thomata Doe is a student at Iowa State University majoring in Nutritional Science and Global Resource Systems. Kori Ponder attends Drake University where she is double majoring in Environmental Science and History.