To some, an alternative school is a place to deposit troubled, apathetic teens who just can’t hack it in the mainstream.
Those people have never met the 11 motivated members of the Project Greens team. You will find these Hawthorne Junior-Senior Alternative School students at the Pendleton Farmers Market selling herbs and vegetables they grew themselves in the school’s greenhouse.
Green is their favorite color and getting their hands dirty – no big deal.
This spring, local gardeners filled the teens’ brains with information about seed germination, composting, mulching, plant pathology, transplanting, insect control and vertical gardening. Along the way, the students soaked in some business acumen, too.
It’s hard not to catch the fever when talking to these budding plant producers. Recently, six team members talked about the program in tones that were definitely not apathetic. More jazzed, really. They spent five minutes, for instance, describing something called a global bucket.
“It was invented by two teenage kids and it works,” said Veronika Messer, 16.
Two brothers, Grant and Max Buster, designed the simple but ingenious watering system that incorporates two five-gallon plastic bucket, 24 inches of plastic pipe, a plastic cup, soil and water. Water sits in a reservoir and is wicked slowly to the soil above. Dora Mulkey, 15, said the bucket was the brothers’ attempt to help solve world hunger in places such as Africa.
In recent weeks, Mulkey and her classmates raised herbs and other plants from seedlings in egg cartons or cups under grow lights into sturdy plants that could be transplanted into larger containers. Greenhouse shelves provide space for basil, parsley, thyme, summer savory, cilantro, dill, chives and a variety of peppers. In a small raised bed alongside the greenhouse is a salsa garden that will eventually produce tomatoes and other veggies.
Chris Bettineski, lead teacher and counselor at Hawthorne, loves watching his students revel in this success. He said many of the students come from challenging home environments and poverty. Ninety percent qualify for free or reduced lunch. A third of the students are classified as homeless, which means they couch surf or have other unstable housing.
“When you think about the hierarchy of needs, a lot of times, school isn’t the most important thing going on in these kids’ lives,” Bettineski said. “We do a lot of problem solving.”
Project Greens, he said, inspired some passion. Last Friday, the kids loaded herbs into a pick-up belonging to art teacher Teresa Fenn and headed to market. In each plant container were laminated information cards with plant information researched by the students. After setting up, it was time to sell their product. They were nervous, but ready.
“We had worked on public relations,” said Fenn. “They learned what do you say when you’re scared to say anything. They needed to be able to sell their products.”
Tisha Roark said she steeled herself for her first customer service experience.
“I thought it would be scary,” Roark said, “but it wasn’t.”
Roark said she relaxed quickly and concentrated on answering questions about herbs and the school. She carefully counted back the change after a sale.
“We’re learning people skills,” Mulkey said. “In jobs out there in the real world, you have to know how to talk to people.”
“In the beginning, they think they’re just digging in dirt, but it’s so much more,” Fenn said.
The project relies heavily on community support. She praised volunteers such as Karl and Sue Niederwerfer, Jim Willis, Jeanne Jensen, Dee Armstrong and other community volunteers. Donations came in from D&B Supply, Walmart, Pendleton Plumbing and community members.
The students earned $228 during their first Farmers Market experience. That and profit from a few more outings will roll into next year’s program.
In future years, the project may include a cooking component to inspire healthy eating using their bounty from the school garden.
Community service will be an ongoing element of the project. The kids will make two treks to the senior center for weeding and planting.
Fenn said she hopes Pendleton will embrace Hawthorne as its own.
“We’ve shown the public our school cares about our community,” she said. “We want our community to care about our school.”
Contact Kathy Aney at email@example.com or 541-966-0810.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.