Alexandria, VA – On a cool November day last fall, Jessica Buchanan recorded her students furiously digging in the dirt, in a frenzy to find their buried treasure. The whooping and walloping rose in crescendo as one student finally emerged with the loot: a gigantic sweet potato. Buchanan asked him to hold it up for the camera, and he smiled when she said, “My goodness, that is as big as your head!”
Buchanan is the Outdoor Education coordinator at Hollin Meadows Elementary School (HMES) in Alexandria, where an emphasis on gardening, sustainability, and Earth Day has galvanized the community since 2004. The school’s gardens now include two dozen raised beds and three large in-ground beds, a platform classroom deck, a jumbo storage shed, two 3,400-gallon cisterns filled with rainwater for irrigation, and a sensory pathway that’s great for all students but especially those with emotional disabilities. When they take breaks during the day, they can remove their shoes and walk along the pathway feeling the earth, stone, and grass under their bare feet, something they may not have the chance to do often.
Hollin Meadows’ Earth Day celebrations have grown exponentially over the years (no pun intended), and their harvests yield at least 100 pounds of produce in a growing season, 40 of which is consumed at the school’s Thanksgiving Day luncheon. The school is piloting the USDA Farm-to-School Program for Fairfax County, an initiative that focuses on getting food from the garden into the salad bar.
HMES Principal Jon Gates hired Buchanan in September 2018 to revamp the Outdoor Education program that had grown dormant while the school was being renovated. With the help of the Hollin Meadows Partnership for Outdoor Education, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to the school’s agricultural ventures, Buchanan went to work raising money to kick start the program again. The school received a $5,000 grant from Index Analytics and took advantage of the Get2Green initiative for Fairfax County Public Schools via a USDA grant, which offers funding and guidance on environmental projects. The foundation partnered with community groups such as the Boy Scouts and Engineers Without Borders, who drew up plans for an irrigation system.
Adam Neulight, an HMES alumni (class of 2013), worked with Buchanan and the engineering team to hook up a pump and irrigation lines for the rainwater, collected in the massive cisterns, to keep the gardens watered over the summer. Neulight enjoyed helping with the design and said improving the gardens was great, but coming back to do this work at his own alma mater was “the best part, actually.” Matriculating through the Outdoor Education program at HMES gave him an appreciation for Earth Day and the environment, and he was thankful for the opportunity to give back. “I always loved Earth Day and all the outdoor science classes we had,” he explained, “because I liked doing the work that kept us busy outside, and it was still for school even though we weren’t stuck at our desks.”
Buchanan knows just what he’s talking about. “You can see these kids light up when they are doing this schoolwork outside, observing, making their notes, really focused on their task.” When they take a break from digging and pause to feel the breeze and the sun on their faces, it’s a moment of mindfulness, a whole body experience. “It’s a revelation, especially for the students who struggle in a typical classroom setting. Those are the ones who really benefit when they find success out here.”
Sue Bernstein and Robin Arnold sent their children through Hollin Meadows 10 years ago, but they still beat the drum and do what they can to ensure this worthy program thrives. “Jon Gates told us we’re like a bad penny,” they laughed, “we keep showing up.” They both serve on the foundation’s board to help raise not only much-needed funds but also awareness to keep the movement moving. Bernstein also works part-time in the Outdoor Education program, adding her own colorful enthusiasm to the effort.
Sadly, the current public health crisis has closed the school this spring, placing this year’s crops and Earth Day celebration on hold, but they will be back at it as soon as they can. Fundraising will always be a constant and Bernstein and Arnold will continue to beat the drums of connection, collaboration, and community.
Buchanan will begin the growing cycle once again, working with the teachers to line up her lessons with their pacing guides and curriculum. And digging in the dirt. “It’s backbreaking work. We love what we do, but we’re always so grateful for the volunteers who come to help.” In fact, if you’d like to lend a helping hand to this essential life-learning program, volunteers are needed throughout the summer. Contact [email protected].