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Community experience helps student grow

At the end of my undergraduate studies, I had the opportunity to intern with the nonprofit Growing Gardens located in Portland, Oregon.

Its mission is to use the experience of growing food in backyards, schools and correctional facilities to cultivate healthy communities.

Growing Gardens, open since 1996, offers three programs — home gardens, youth grow and lettuce grow — that provide hands-on gardening experiences in different communities. I worked as an assistant garden educator intern in the youth grow program. This program provides interactive education in school gardens to help children feel accepted and informed to make healthy choices, become stewards of the environment, share their culture and increase community resilience.

I had the privilege to work with six different Portland Metro area schools, all with different demographics, some of which were Spanish or Russian language immersion schools. I was assigned the role of assisting the garden educators, which meant I did practically anything and everything related to and in the garden.

Uncovering worms — and joy

Although I grew up around families with agricultural backgrounds, I never had a garden or learned about how certain plants are grown or what nutrients they provide. Everything I learned about food was through my fascination with the culinary world and from infamous Food Network shows.

Prior to starting at Growing Gardens, I was nervous and had many concerns. My biggest concerns were children and bugs — I don’t believe I’m great with either. But, about three months in, my concerns became my greatest joys.

I started adoring the kids and the innocent questions they asked. I was intrigued that they loved worms and that they wanted to keep every single bug they found in the garden. I was excited to help them plant garlic bulbs and Austrian peas for a cover crop.

Learning from the garden educators and observing the passion they had for educating students about the environment and how important gardens are was inspiring.

As the months went on, I started to observe the difficulties around language barriers and the wide range of ethnicities. And, I started noticing community problems.

Seeing community in a new way

One day, I was washing my hands at a school sink and noticed a piece of paper taped onto the wall that said, “Do not drink from this fixture.” Then I started noticing these signs in other schools as well.

This got me thinking. What could potentially be wrong?

I learned there have been issues of lead contamination in Portland Public Schools since 2016. At first, I did not think it was a huge problem, as other accommodations such as water filters were installed, until I started noticing how difficult it was to prepare cooking classes or to get a drink of water without stepping away from the kids.

At Growing Gardens, lead is tested before any in-home gardens are built and tested in every school garden bed. Thankfully, none of the school garden soils had elevated levels.

Regardless, lead contamination is one problem that many students are aware of and have been greatly affected by. The question remains whether or not all water fountains and pipes will be replaced in the next year.

My experience with Growing Gardens exposed me to how environmental hazards can affect an entire population. I believe it is important that we identify these hazards to ensure schools and communities are safe.

Growing Gardens is not just a Portland nonprofit but an organization that helps the community to grow, and helps me, a college graduate who grew up in the Portland Metro area, to give back in ways I would have never imagined.

I am thankful I had the opportunity to learn about the difficulties in our communities and have developed increased awareness on how to help overcome them.

Stephanie Yang graduates in December 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in public health and a minor in psychology.