The Lessons I’ve Learned

On Poverty and Other People’s Children

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All photo credit goes to Amberleigh Storms. All photos are of the community garden.

The year was 2014. I had this preposterous idea I’d volunteer to teach a garden club to underprivileged elementary school kids at the Tempe Community Action Agency in Arizona.

There’s ample logical for why this was a bad idea.

When I tell people I’m from Arizona I always hear the same response. It a dry heat! These are people who have never been to Arizona. Yes, it is a dry heat. It feels exactly like crawling into a burning oven.

The thing about other people’s children is I don’t like them. I mean, I don’t look at them and say, How cute! or Adorable!, or What fun! because none of this is true. I don’t feel that way.

On my list of things I can do without in my life; 100+ degree weather and other people’s children are right below being taken hostage by North Korea.

With that said, I don’t dislike children at all. I wanted to do this to create a positive impact in our community.

All children are our future. We need to encourage them to grow up to be the best versions of themselves. We need to nurture them, educate them and believe in them.

These underprivileged children have single moms working two jobs and still not making ends meet. Their fathers are absent from the home. They live in low income housing in dangerous neighborhoods or come from generations of working poor families. They are a minority and they had fallen through the cracks of a system that provides little hope.

For many of these kids people like me are all they’ve got. For many of these kids this was the only place to go after school so they weren’t home alone.

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I was undeniably enthusiastic about the garden club the day I signed my name on the contract but on the first day I realized I was alone, surrounded by thirty five overly excited, extremely energetic and easily distracted children. What was I thinking?

In the beginning their only interest was the free snacks. They didn’t care about the life cycle of plants or eating healthy and because of this I felt I was failing them. We met three days a week and the first week bombed horribly.

As I was working on a lesson plan for the following week I thought a great deal about the children and how to get through to them. I opted to blow off the lesson planning and go rogue. Instead of worksheets and raising hands to answer questions we would experiment with hands on learning.

We dug holes and planted seeds. We fed chickens. We would reap the benefits of our labor. We would be rewarded with bushels of fruit, vegetables and eggs come the end of the season.

The kids ran across the school parking lot shouting my name, eager to line up and walk over to the community garden. When we arrived they would drop their backpacks and dive into the dirt. Our plants were growing taller and the kids got to take turns bringing eggs home.

The skills we learned together are something I hope they teach their children some day. We learned hard work comes with reward and why teamwork and collaboration is imperative with large projects. We gained knowledge of self sufficiency and how capable we are even when we think we’re not.

We learned progress requires patience. I still struggle with that at times.

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Me with the garden club kids in the background.

The season drew to a close. We filled our baskets up throughout the last week. We grew huge melons and hundreds of pea pods, vibrant green spinach and enough sunflower seeds to last for eternity. We hosted a snack time with their parents so they could see what their child had done and how proud we were of ourselves and each other. Only three out of thirty five children’s parents showed up.

They wore disappointment on their faces. I attempted to fix it with freshly picked dirty carrots. Many of them hugged me goodbye. I never saw them again but I often wonder how they are doing now.

I would go on to supervise a campus where we served families in crisis and victims of violence. One of my job roles was overseeing the after school center for children with behavioral issues and violent tendencies of their own.

I was successful because of what the kids in the garden club taught me. I often blew off my state required piles of paperwork to spend time with the kids in the after school center because I learned the most valuable thing I can give to children is myself and my time.

We even built a small garden box of our own.

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Newspaper reporter in Eastern Iowa. The views expressed are mine alone.

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