Kids Can Grow school program to go province-wide

Jason Forrest

The Recorder

MANITOULIN—Imagine a place where every child, every teenager and every adult knew how to plant a seed, grow a flower, harvest a vegetable and foster good soil on their land and in their community. This could be the reality for young people and future adults of Ontario if Chuc and Linda Willson’s program Kids Can Grow is entered into the school curriculum with the help of the Farmers’ Markets of Ontario (FMO).

Mr. and Ms. Willson were recently invited to share the results of their program, Kids Can Grow, with fellow farmers, gardeners and market vendors this year at the Ontario Fruits and Vegetables Growers Convention in conjunction with the FMO.

According to Ted Smith, the Northern Director of FMO, you could hear a pin drop while the entire room of participants were captivated by a video presented by the Willsons, showcasing the children in the classroom, getting advice from farmers and gardeners, and using it in practice: sowing seeds, growing flowers and vegetables, picking produce, and using the produce to create meals. He said many questions were answered during the discussion held after the presentation and all of the program packages were picked up, with phone calls already placed for more information.

“We were delighted to be invited to the convention and we were very well received,” Ms. Willson said. “The FMO board was blown away by the success we had in the classroom, and they have agreed to run the program and take it into the school curriculum.”

Mr. and Ms. Willson said they are excited to be partnering with the FMO and seeing their program formalized. Mr. Smith said the FMO will be undertaking the task of having the Kids Can Grow program copyrighted.

“Basically, the FMO wants to pursue the goal of getting the program put in as many schools as it can across the province of Ontario. They want to start by matching up schools to their local farmers’ market, and eventually entering the program into the full school curriculum,” Mr. Smith explained.

The FMO will also take care of the promotions side of Kids Can Grow and create new documents to support the program with guidelines and suggestions to give farmers a jumpstart when entering the classroom for the first time.

“The Kids Can Grow program originally came about in 2006 while speaking to the other board members of the Gore Bay Farmers’ Market,” Ms. Willson explained.

The board was looking for a worthwhile project to benefit the market and the community and fell upon one key issue: children and teenagers are losing contact with the earth and the soil in which to grow their own food and flowers. The Willsons thought the farmers’ market would be a perfect link between farmers, gardeners and the youth on Manitoulin Island to reawaken these skills; and what better place to start than in the classroom.

Mr. Willson went home and set to work filling out paperwork for a FedNor grant, which would eventually lead to his brainchild, Kids Can Grow.

And so began Kids Can Grow, a way to teach young people how to foster good growing habits by linking them with experienced farmers and gardeners in the area, like Mr. Willson himself, who goes into the classrooms and presents the children with the cycle of life, a story of a plant’s life from seed to flower and fruit. Vincent Belenson, or ‘The Worm Guy,’ as the kids like to call him, tells a story about the soil and the worms, and leaves the kids with his important lesson, “to make good things grow, you have to start with good soil.”

The students are given the opportunity to plant flowers and keep them alive and healthy in hopes of selling them at the Gore Bay farmers’ market in June.

“The kids love learning about growing; they are entertained and become so attentive when we’re teaching them about good growing habits through story,” Ms. Willson said.

She said through suggestions by growers in the area they have been able to provide easy growing flowers to the students, requiring the least amount of care: marigolds, calendula, cosmos and zinnias.

She explained how the students became so interested in growing flowers they wanted to grow other plants too, including sunflowers, pumpkins, squash, tomatoes and peppers, which they grow into seedlings in small peat pots and transplant in their garden at home, or in community gardens at Central Manitoulin Public School, Lakeview School and Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS), which have emerged since the Kids Can Grow program started. By planting in their community gardens, students are encouraged to keep growing throughout the summer months with their family, friends and community members.

Another event has also emerged from the program. Throughout the harvest season, the students work with the elders in M’Chigeeng to harvest vegetables from the community garden for preserving and canning, like pickles, relishes and sauces. The students help gather the vegetables and also help in the processing of the produce, along with the elders, certified health advisors and nutritionists. Once the preserving is finished, everyone shares in a community feast.

“Our program started with two schools: Lakeview School and MSS,” Ms. Willson said. “We had real success selling cut and bedding flowers and complementing the market with something no one else was doing full-scale.”

In the first year, the flowers grown by students were only available at the Gore Bay market on Fridays. In 2007, Little Current Public School got their hands dirty by introducing the program in their school and selling flowers at their local market as well.

This year, the Willsons have six schools in the area, including Sheshegwaning School, Little Current Public School, Central Manitoulin Public School, and A.B. Ellis Public School in Espanola. She said Wikwemikong will also be participating in the program this year, along with their own support staff and volunteers to teach their students how to benefit from good gardening and farming practices.

“It’s been great to watch our program evolve,” Ms. Willson said. “Each year, we receive help through more volunteers, and donations of materials, growing mediums and seeds. Mr. Smith (also a local farmer in the Burpee and Mills area), has helped in the classroom and by donating seeds.”

Ms. Willson said Heather Thoma has been a great help with her natural teaching skills at Little Current Public School and at A.B. Ellis, as well as helping the community gardens in Central Manitoulin and M’Chigeeng.

“We want to thank Judy Olacke for creating the video for us and Peter Nelson for writing the accompanying song, ‘I Am a Seed’,” Ms. Smith said. “Also, thanks to Linda Belton at the Sudbury and District Health Unit for all the help and volunteers.”

The Willsons will still be participating in their own program once the FMO takes the reins. They said they will continue to teach the in the classrooms and remain involved with the whole process on the local level, as well as consult with the FMO on structure and guidelines for the program.

“We are happy the FMO is taking our program under its auspices and so are they,” Ms. Willson said. “We want to see the program flourish in Ontario and allow farmers to reach out and teach children how to take care of the earth and prosper from it.”

“Having this program in classrooms will be a positive outcome for everyone involved,” Mr. Smith said. “Students, market vendors, teachers, parents: everyone would win in a partnership like this.”