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Life Arts

Focus on New Orleans: Greening Langston Hughes Academy with Amy Zellweger

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My guest today is Amy Zellweger, New Orleans' Langston Hughes charter school garden coordinator and educator. Welcome to OpEdNews, Amy. What exactly do you do there?

Hi Joan, thank you for having me on OpEdNews! I am excited to share the exciting changes happening at Langston Hughes Academy! Currently, I am serving through Americorps at LHA as the garden coordinator and educator. That's a fancy name for building, working and teaching in the garden! I teach classes K-3 during the day out in the garden, and then an after school program with the older scholars twice a week. We are learning everything from plant life, to soil life, water consumption, and larger concepts such as the interrelationships of all things! In class and after school, we also plant seeds and transplants and maintain our ever growing garden! I also am in charge of holding volunteer days, such as the one where we met, and organizing garden builds and projects... It's a lot of work, and I love it!

You're not from the area, Amy. Where did you come from, how did you snag this great job and what experience did you bring with you?

No, Joan, I'm not from the area. I came most recently a year and a half ago from working in the Appalachian mountains. I was working at Buffalo Cove Outdoor Education Center as a outdoor wilderness counselor. We would take inner city foster kids from Miami into the mountains, and do outings and use primitive outdoor skills are a therapeutic means. Before working in North Carolina for a summer, I was living in Seattle, WA as a residential counselor and working with youth on the autism spectrum. I was attracted to New Orleans for many reasons. Who isn't, right?!?!


I started really investigating New Orleans while I was looking at AmeriCorps program here in New Orleans*. I was immediately attracted to a position with a small non-profit, Teaching Responsible Earth Education (T.R.E.E.). I was hired through AmeriCorps to serve at TREE teaching fourth graders out in the natural environment at Jean Lafitte National Park life science education. I also had always felt a pull to come down to New Orleans, post Katrina, and couldn't think of a better reason, to give these kids something most of them had never experienced... a fun, safe and educational time outdoors in nature.

I had an opportunity to show inner city kids that nature isn't scary. It's actually fascinating, and once you are more informed, you can make choices on how to live more sustainably. Anyways, I could keep talking on and on about this because I do feel so lucky to have this opportunity to teach outdoor education in New Orleans, during this educational reform and transition that is happening in this city.

So, after a year of service at TREE, I was hired for another term of AmeriCorps at LHA to act as the garden coordinator and educator. After working with many different types of children in Seattle, teaching and counseling in the wilderness of North Carolina, and teaching in the swamps of Louisiana, I felt prepared to start a new chapter-building, sustaining and teaching at the DreamKeeper Garden at LHA! My gardening experience mostly came from the time I spent in North Carolina, and the gardening I've done here in New Orleans. So, it's fun - learning with the kids, and giving them an opportunity to perceive the outdoor world in a different light.

Yum! NJ volunteers gather greens, November, 2010

I understand that there's a five-year plan for your school garden. What are you aiming for?

The five-year plan is an extensive one that includes a butterfly garden (already established), an edible garden (on the way to being well established), an outdoor classroom, a community growing area, an area for rows of crops (which will increase food access to the community), and an outdoor conflict resolutions circle (a space that will be for conflict mediation).

We are aiming for education, having ample space to teach outdoors and use the garden as a teaching tool. We are also aiming for a space where conflicts can be resolved non-violently, without leading to out-of-school suspension; and outdoors can be the most therapeutic tool! We are also aiming to increase food access, and community outreach, involvement and education. We aim to teach workshops to the community regarding food access and growing your own food, and increasing awareness of the health benefits of engaging their children with nature.

That sounds pretty ambitious and very, very exciting. Can you talk about it more in depth, please? Will the produce show up in the school cafeteria? What is an outdoor conflict resolution circle? Is the community growing area for people in the neighborhood who want to participate?

Yes, Joan, to all those questions! The community growing area will be for people in the neighborhood. Our hope is to produce an area where the neighborhood can come and garden, learn about growing, host workshops, and trade or sell the food they've grown. Since the changes in the public education system, there are few public schools that are neighborhood schools; i.e., a school where all the local neighborhood children go... Because of this, I feel there is a lack of involvement from the surrounding community, my hope is to change that.

An outdoor conflict resolution circle simply put, is a outdoor space, where conflicts between scholars can be resolved in a peaceful, non-aggressive manner in a relaxing environment.

The edible garden does hope to be able to contribute to the school lunches. However, at this time, the current school lunch provider has strict regulations and rules on outside food being a part of their meals, it's in their contracts. I truthfully don't know much about it, but the New Orleans Food Policy Advisory Committee is a great resource for that.

I understand that the Food Network got involved also. How?

Yes the Food Network became involved with our Dreamkeeper Garden through a grant we received, the Good Food Garden Grant... This was a collaboration between the Food Network, Cox Communications (our local cable provider), Share Our Strength (a non-profit to fight child hunger) and Teich Systems (the builders of the 16x16 ft. structure). With all these wonderful organizations that paired up, we applied for the chance to be the recipient of the Good Food Garden, and with the help of our Edible Schoolyard friends here in New Orleans, we won! So, Teich Systems, came down to NOLA, built a beautiful 16x16 ft. structure, equipped with irrigation, free plants, and some PR to go with it! It was a great motivation to continue growing our garden, and a beautiful addition! With all that said, the Food Network will check in on us periodically, give us more transplant plants, and maybe even show a little ditty of our Dreamkeeper Garden on their cable show!

That's pretty exciting. Great teamwork! Volunteers come and perform all kinds of services in your garden, like we did last month. Tell our readers what sorts of things you have them doing, Amy.

Yes, Joan, we have volunteers come from all over the country, and some from just around the block! The main goal, is to expand the garden through volunteer effort. One girl, such as myself, can only do so much!! So, volunteers have played a HUGE role in the building, maintenance and design of our garden, not to mention the beauty and creativity of the Dreamkeeper Garden! Volunteers have constructed raised beds, shade structures, shelving, picnic tables and benches. Volunteers also design and paint on our fences, help organize the garden, plant seeds, and lay mulch. But, most of all, the volunteers that have come to assist in the Dreamkeeper Garden have given myself and the scholars belief and support that there is a greater community that cares.

Trellis-building for climbing spinach, November, 2010

I had a great time watering, composting, and building a trellis out of twine and bamboo poles for those climbing beans or peas or whatever they were. It was tremendously satisfying. It'll be fun to see how the garden grows over the next several years. I understand that you have a wish list, Amy. Care to share it with our readers?

Oh, yes! Compost is a another huge help from volunteers. Our compost system was set up with the help of many AmeriCorps volunteers one hot, hot day! The trellis that was created, successfully at that (it's still very much up and working wonderfully!), was for our climbing spinach!

Yes, still waiting on the wish list, it's difficult... I've never had anyone ask what my wish list for the garden is!! Okay, here it is...

I feel like your fairy godmother!

-a small orchard (this is more of the kids wish, they really, really want an apple orchard, which may not be fully possible, but a citrus orchard, totally

-a mushroom corner... i.e., starts to tons of different breeds of mushrooms for the children to learn about the amazing properties of fungi!

-An outside teaching kitchen, stoves, burners, grill and counter tops all sheltered.

-A permanent shade structure, hand-built, using recycled or salvaged materials/wood.

-an outdoor pizza oven to bake what we grow!

-More wonderful volunteer groups like yours that visited. Seriously.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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