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The "Grow More Good" Experience

Dawn Bolen, Science teacher at Fairmont Junior High in Boise and IdEEA member

Originally published by Snake River Seeds Cooperative

I have been a science teacher in the same junior high for 8 years. We have an extraordinary mix of cultures and creeds in our school. Some of our kids have huge support at home, some with extended family and strong values. Others have been ripped from their ancestral land, or removed from their homes. We see kids from all walks of life, and we have certainly been through some turbulent times together. The years of distancing, disengaging, and drama swirling around us has left a thick, heavy haze. It takes time to clear the doldrums from that and to build healthy connections again. I feel like we’re all coming out of a long, dark winter together. The roots are strong, the sprouts are poking out, and finally the sun is taking back the day. 

This year I decided to become more involved as a leader for my school. I wanted to connect more kids who show genuine interest and excitement for building relationships and community. When a role appeared that was exactly that, but with an even more purposeful cause, I applied and became the Sustainability Lead at Fairmont last fall. My district has a long and dedicated commitment to sustainability, and as this is the first year for our district to appoint a person in all 51 of our schools, there is some freedom to find our own way to sustainability. Some schools have had a long-time Green Team, some have student-led “green” projects, and at Fairmont, we’ve had a Builders Club. New names have been tossed around to start fresh this year, but the core of the group has never changed. We all want to connect and build community through our actions. We recognize how we all fare better when we care about each other and the places we share. We are proud together when we support common goals.

We had been focused on imagining and planting life back into our next big courtyard project when my bee-loving supervisor, Alison Ward, passed on a contact person for the garden I’ve been peeking over the fence at for years. It’s a lively, good sized one with colorful, funky fence panel paintings tucked between two brick and stone buildings, and it’s directly across the street from our school. When I began communicating with the gardeners, I discovered that the lot was one of many Treasure Valley Community Garden Cooperative (TVCGCoop) gardens. This grassroots organization started as a proactive response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, as an effort to increase access to good food and grow positive community connections. In the span of a year 43 area community gardens were identified and contacted, and several garden tours were held. This garden was wondering if our students would like to share the garden experience. Yes, indeed we would. 

People of all kinds are rejuvenated, even healed with time working and wandering in gardens, and I knew this place would have that effect on our students. I discovered we had neighbors peeking over our fence too, wondering if they could offer an experience for our school that would connect our community by cultivating clean food for everyone. Instantly, I had the opportunity to show kids how to plant their own garden, manage water carefully, harvest their own bounty, and in the process we would teach them that their efforts in a community garden would serve multiple goals, all in service to their community. Over 36,850 people in ADA county are food insecure. Not everyone has the space, time, or knowledge to grow their own gardens. A community garden serves those most in need by sharing the work, the space, the experience, and the bounty. In a stroke of good fortune and guidance, I had a link to planting more seeds and setting more roots in our quirky, cracked, and deeply deserving community. It’s called the “Grow More Good Garden” and I couldn’t have dreamed of a more perfect name. 

Since the connection last fall, there's been an incredible series of “garden awakenings” in our afternoon club. My new bright and zealous garden partner, Mary K who is the garden manager and a TVCGCoop founding organizer, has volunteered after school and has taught us how to winnow seeds into packets in November, the surprise of jug-planting in January, and how indoor seeding and repotting all happens in preparation for working the ground, long before Spring arrives. We’ve planned our own future projects around our school, and the students have been happy to be a part of something that brings them all together and just feels good. Not much has even made it into the ground yet this Spring, but there is commitment and celebration where relationships are abundant, and the positive energy is ripe for the picking. We’ve chosen our own plants, dug in the dirt together, planned out a row and started seeding in the community garden, that welcoming space. We are empowering everyone involved with a meaningful victory project, deeply rooted in lifting the community and each other. Our students are coming together as volunteers, as friends, and as visible representatives of what human connections look like when we all thrive in the same healthy place. I was feeling so puffed up and proud of us all when I got another message from Ali, my bee-loving mentor.  

“Would you like to go to the Green Schools National Conference in Santa Fe?” Ali has been hard at work to establish Green Team Leads in our district as part of our EcoSchool initiative with the National Wildlife Federation. She has been guiding us to be mindful of our role in showing district staff and students how to maintain our planet in a balanced way that is possible with human action. We as Leads are learning the effects of those actions in providing healthy shared indoor and environmental outdoor places, clean water and air, and food security for our community directly. We have also been partnering with the Eco Schools initiative to be certified in our schools, and are closely considering specific actions recommended by United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in a determined direction. I said yes before I blinked. I had an opportunity only a handful of our Leads were able to take, and I knew it would give me even more direction for our future projects. I needed to make my own connections in a national community of sustainability leaders, and I wanted to learn how to expand our afternoon club into a school-wide commitment, and I needed more ideas. I didn’t know what to expect, but I had a strong feeling that it would be everything I was looking for. It was a deeply invigorating experience beyond my expectations. There was a time when I thought teaching science to youth in our community was the absolute best, most noble and committed thing I could do in my lifetime… until I went to Santa Fe and experienced what it truly means to be a Green School leader. More importantly still, I am learning how our district will create common goals for improving the future and planting hope and wellness into our youth through community action.

The conference was a rush of sessions that flooded my head with all the amazing things schools across the country have been doing since the first one nearly 10 years ago. We could choose to attend a variety of presentations, including topics like place-based pathways using our own ecosystem solutions to minimize our impact on the planet, storytelling to pull ideas and people together, zero waste projects, mapping and data collecting to create schools with cleaner air, water, and food security in our community, social-emotional learning structured in common values, teaching climate literacy, environmental justice, and empowering students to be stewards of the places we share. There was evidence of amazing action happening everywhere and now there was no question, my community was part of it. 

The commonality in all the sessions was to know details about the environment where we live, and to share those places in meaningful ways. There was an emphasis on giving students a voice to improve the places we share by connecting them to industry and community supporters, educating them to be stewards of the land, and to be brave leaders in our neighborhoods. It was an inspiring, rejuvenating, revitalizing experience, and now I know how to better lead on the Sustainability team, and I have idea seeds to share to create the school-wide actions my district has envisioned for years. With all the brilliance in ideas I tried to absorb, I recognized that it often went back to a school garden. In nearly every session, someone mentioned their school's connection to clean food. From vertical gardens in small spaces, to culinary programs that use the harvest to feed the school, to full scale neighborhood gardens that feed the community and their local industries. In the midst of the data collecting, the grants and rebates available to fund projects and student engagement activities, they all had their gardens to tend. And now we have ours. I can see a future where the garden grows those sturdy sprouts into the biggest, most majestic sunflowers our skies have ever seen in this place we call home. Like the sunflower, we can finally turn our faces to the sun and feel it’s powerful energy fueling us for precious life. 

The one thing that stuck out about our group of Boiseans at the conference, was that we were unique in having our district dedicated to improve our impact on the future by placing a Sustainability Lead in every school. There were many “green school” models and even some small districts in and around some large sites, but no one was doing what we have done this year. In four days, I recognized the value in that action, and how unique we are in our Treasure Valley home. As a performance leading school district, first original, independent and second largest in the state of Idaho, we have an opportunity that could spread much further than the neighborhood community my school serves. The possibilities are endless and everything is on the table this year. I began to really appreciate this first year of discovering what’s best for my school community. On the plane back to Boise, I found myself reflecting on how proud and prepared I am to be more than a teacher for my community. I feel the shine.  

I learned so much, but for this role at my beloved school, it defined “sustainability” in a more vivid language. There are inspiring ways schools, industry leaders, and entire districts have been doing this across our country for years. The benefit to our students in the community garden has only just begun. They will learn more in the coming months about sustainability goals the garden reaches, like zero hunger, good health and well being, climate action, and partnerships for our collective goals. We will harvest the bounty together in the years that lie ahead. 

The first season for our Fairmont community Builders is ahead of us and we all are waiting patiently to see more sunshine and blue skies. We have a strong group who are energized and ready to involve more friends during school. We have builders and community leaders ready to volunteer, to dig in the earth, and to bring our people together for one common cause; connecting our community through our stories, using the environment as our common ground to sow the seeds of wellness, good health, and hope. We will always blend cultures and creeds in our communities, but we are forever able to celebrate the places we share together as one people. With respect for all people and the land where our roots are growing, we will improve the future for us all. That is what sustainability means to me. The Boise School District’s vision with our Sustainability program is “to be an inspiring and responsible model of environmental, educational, social, and economic sustainability in our community.”  To be a science teacher, Sustainability Leader, and now a community gardener gives me a deeper purpose, a rooted anchoring to my place in this community and as a human on this beautiful Earth. To connect each other into action in a meaningful way, rooting ourselves through the stories of our community in places we share. I will always have a place for hope in my heart and for the future of our world. I will always share that as a seed for others to grow. I am feeling the fog lift, the frost melt away from the mornings, I am witnessing the symphony of the awakening gardens, forests, desert landscapes around this beautiful, inspiring place we call home. Planting roots in community is a human experience and for my part, I will lead my community to Grow More Good.


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