The Not-So-Secret Garden at Archbishop Damiano School

The Not-So-Secret Garden at Archbishop Damiano School

Archbishop Damiano School student and 4-H Club member Evelyn Vargas creates an arrangement using dried flowers harvested from the school’s Not-So-Secret Garden.

Beginning with a couple of butterfly bushes more than nine years ago, Archbishop Damiano School’s horticulture initiative has since grown to include a 50-square-foot garden with 25 raised vegetable beds, a fully functional greenhouse and an aquaponics system.

As a testament to the school’s success with the initiative almost a decade later, Archbishop Damiano School (ADS) was one of the recipients of the Innovations for Special Education Awards for their efforts in creating “Sustainability in the Classroom.”

The award was presented May 8 at the Westin Forrestal Village in Princeton, N.J. It was given by the New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA) and ASAH, a not-for-profit organization of private schools and agencies in New Jersey.

In 2008, the horticulture program began when the area behind the school was transformed into a garden, so that students could reap the therapeutic and academic benefits of tending their own plots. It was also during this time that ADS chartered the first 4-H Club for students with disabilities in New Jersey.

“Besides the very tangible student learning outcomes, it is the intangible that makes this a truly unique program,” assistant principal Greg Zink said. “Students who are difficult to engage in a traditional classroom come alive when working with plants and animals.”

ADS’s Horticulture program and 4-H Club have garnered tremendous success in teaching students with special needs how to grow, harvest and prepare nutritious food right in their own backyard with a focus on recycling and repurposing. Throughout the school year, students learn how to start seedlings, plant crops, harvest those crops, and how to prepare healthy meals in the school’s Daily Living classroom. Each year, classrooms can volunteer to have a specific plot in the ADS Not-So-Secret-Garden. While tending to the garden year-round, students harvest herbs and vegetables from their plot, which they can elect to use in cooking demonstrations, donate to the ADS school cafeteria for fresh salads or send to the Pitman Food Pantry.

In addition, ADS’s 4-H Club hosts a number of projects, including sales to benefit the Saint John of God Community Services Emergency Relief Fund, an animal shelter drive to benefit Mulligan’s Animal Rescue and creating decorations for the annual Whitall House Holiday Tours. The 4-H students also participate in major environmental projects each year, including NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife’s Trout in the Classroom, which allows schools to raise trout from eggs.

“This form of learning gives greater opportunities for our students who may have limited participation in the classroom,” Brother Thomas Osorio, O.H., interim executive director of Saint John of God Community Services said.

For more information about ADS’s “Sustainability in the Classroom,” please call Shannon Reyes at 865-848-4700, ext. 1231 or email communications@sjogcs.org.

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