At Seek Academy, in the South Ward of Newark, New Jersey, students use a special sign to spread the love. “In our school, if you wiggle your fingers at someone, you’re sending them love,” says co-founding teacher Uzma Chowdhury, who started at Seek last year. When she and her colleagues reclaimed a vacant lot across the street and created a school garden there, they started noticing that the kids often wiggled their fingers at the dirt and seedlings. And they knew exactly what was up. The kindergarteners were making their first plant friends, and there was a lot of love happening. “Whenever they walk by the garden or walk through the flower boxes,” says Chowdhury, “they send the little seedling boxes love. They would just do that by themselves.” We probably don’t need to tell you that this warms the deepest cockles of our little ioby hearts.
Seek Academy is one of three New Jersey schools collaborating right now with the National Wildlife Federation’s Eco-Schools USA program; the school is currently raising money via our ioby platform to further develop the garden, buy seeds (the kids really, really want carrots, cherry tomatoes, and flowers), and build a simple outdoor classroom. And the kids are, to put it mildly, all in. “It’s really cute,” says Chowdhury. “They save their seeds from their lunch to give to me, to give to the plants. They bring wet slimy piles of orange and apple seeds to plant. We read The Lorax, and they’re always talking about The Lorax in relation to the garden, and how they’re going to be the people who bring the Lorax back to Newark.”
The radishes, arugula, spinach, and winter crops that the kids planted with donated seeds in their first raised bed have already sprouted, and joyful sprout mania is in the air. “Everything is getting ready to be harvested pretty soon,” says Chowdhury. “I don’t think they’ve ever seen a lot of green things, so when they saw an empty box of dirt begin to be filled with tiny green sprouts, they were so excited by that. They made this grow by themselves.”
Chowdhury is our favorite kind of human: a mover and a shaker with a strong vision and equally strong follow-through. And she knows from experience how empowering it can be to learn to grow things, especially for those who tend to feel voiceless: children, the disadvantaged, those in the justice system. During college, she worked on a farm in Athens, Georgia, and developed a program that brought in teens to do their community service hours. “Instead of doing something like cleaning trash off the side of the road,” says Chowdhury, “which isn’t really fun, and is kind of dehumanizing, they would come and help things grow. I saw how awesome it was for them to be able to take pride in their community. In gardening, they were getting food, they were getting a sense of craftsmanship and making the community more beautiful, and they had a lot of fun. You can take a seed and do so much good.”
So as a freshly-minted graduate and new Teach for America fellow in 2014, she wasted no time getting the ball rolling on a garden for Seek. Once she and her colleagues had procured rights to the vacant lot, via Newark’s awesome adopt-a-lot program (turn a lot into a project that’ll green the city, and you can lease it for a dollar a year), they set to work clearing it of junk.
And more junk. And more junk. Mattresses, garbage, glass, needles, liquor bottles, gigantic cinder blocks, you name it. “We rented a 22-yard dumpster that was filled to capacity with all the garbage we took out,” says Chowdhury, “and all the invasive plants. When there’s space that’s not taken care of, it turns into a dumping ground. If it looks like there’s garbage somewhere, why not add more?” Next, it was time to lay wood chips and cardboard down over the weeds, and then to lay down soil: a big volunteer effort. A chicken coop is a possibility on the horizon. The team is also looking to build four wooden benches to create an outdoor classroom in the garden.
If you want to get involved, Chowdhury recommends considering a $25 donation. That buys enough lumber to make one bench in the school’s dream outdoor classroom. It also buys a half a year’s worth of seeds; so far, the school has had to plant whatever seeds they can get donated. “It would be really great for the kids to choose what they want to plant,” says Chowdhury. “I think one of the most important things is to give kids a voice and a sense of ownership in their communities.”
And trust us, they are raring to go and ready to take ownership. “If you asked a student at the academy what plants need to grow,” Choudhury proudly tells us, “they would say: food, water, sunlight and love.” Let’s hope some future leaders of our country are at Seek right now, shall we?
Feeling inspired? Want to take action in YOUR neighborhood? If you have awesome ideas about how to make your town greener, safer, and more fun, let us help! Tell us your awesome idea right here. We’d love to help you get started today.
Pssst…. In OTHER ioby news: Ever wished someone would brighten that not-so-nice part of your neighborhood with a little public art? Here’s the story of two super-busy, super-high schoolers who are driving the effort to create a cool mural in an underpass in Memphis. If they can do it, so can you!