SYCAMORE — A unique service learning project is planting Seeds of Hope in area students with special needs.
Developed in partnership with Seeds of Hope Farm in Tiffin, the project allows eight Mohawk High School students to spend two days each week working on the farm.
“To my knowledge, we are the only group around that does a service learning project like this,” said Lindsay Parkins, a multiple disabilities intervention specialist at Mohawk who oversees the project. “It’s a good program. It fills a lot of voids that you can’t get in school when it’s not hands-on and when you have a unique set of obstacles to learn around anyway, it helps.”
This is the third year for the project, which includes students from six school districts in Wyandot and Seneca counties. Participating students all have special needs, some with multiple disabilities.
“When we first started out three years ago, one of the boys thought a french fry grew on a plant and I thought, ‘Oh no, this isn’t going to work,’” Parkins said. “Just sitting in the classroom, they are not getting everything that they need, so I thought, ‘I have to find something.’ Looking around, my aide and I, we found this farm and we realized instantly that it was the right place for us to be. They treat the kids so well; they fit in and it’s just the right spot for us.
“We started going to the farm to work in 2010,” Parkins added. “It has been an incredibly challenging, yet beneficial experience for our class. My students continue to achieve levels of understanding and self confidence that I had only hoped possible. … They can come out here (to the farm) and be themselves. They don’t have to worry about being teased by other students.”
The service learning project expands the regular classroom curriculum to include hands-on lessons in math, life skills, social studies and English.
“They complete a multitude of tasks at the farm that we relate directly to our classroom curriculum,” Parkins said. “… This experience teaches real vocational skills beyond that which can be attained in the school setting. My students are learning job skills necessary to gain and maintain employment upon graduation. The skills that they are gaining will assist them in many employment settings, whether it be a sheltered workshop, restaurant or in a farm setting.”
After spending three hours on the farm in the morning, the students review their work in the classroom in the afternoon.
“Say we did 58 patches of greens beans that day or 116 orders of onions; then we take that down and we break it all down into math,” Parkins explained. “How many ounces and then how much goes to each place? There’s so much we can do with it to make it real. … These guys aren’t going to get you by just sitting in a classroom throwing constant math at them. It doesn’t help. They need to be out here (on the farm), getting vocational skills that they need to be able to work some kind of a job.”
Since the project began in 2010, students have produced more than 12,000 packages and 10,000 pounds of produce, some of which goes to businesses like Catawba Island Club.
“When it’s harvest season, we have to weigh packages and prepare all the produce and the different private orders we get from restaurants, we fill those orders,” Parkins said.
“We have some (students) that can weigh and estimate down to a quarter of an ounce,” Parkins added. “… Some of them really get it when it comes to estimating produce. They get a really good feel for it, that estimation, and you can’t do that in a classroom. … When we go back to the classroom, they write what they did that day in their journals and I’ll talk about it.”
In addition to planting, harvesting, weighing, packaging and filling orders, the students also transplant, bunch, pull irrigation lines, prepare plants for overwintering, assist in farm stand maintenance, dry herbs and clean produce.
“Not only are they a joy, but they really truly are my farm staff right now,” farm manager Trish Valentine said. “They do everything that our regular farm staff would do and I rely totally on their source of labor. I tend to forget that they’re high school students most of the time because they’re so good at what they do. They take initiative and they just go ahead and perform the jobs that we need done.”
“Since we started coming, Seeds of Hope has started their own camp for special needs kids, so we’ve impacted them as much as they’ve impacted us,” Parkins added.
The students all say they enjoy the work.
“It’s fun,” Emily Bland said. “I like to pull weeds out and sweep the floors.”
“I like pulling weeds and washing out the four packs (that flower seedlings come in),” Riley Borer added. “I like planting flowers.”
The students also get to sample the fruits of their labor.
“We get the opportunity to take different produce back to the classroom and try it,” Parkins said. “This past year, we took two bushels of tomatoes back and we made salsa.”
Parents say they have seen positive changes in their teenagers at home since they started the project.
“He wants to help his dad more in the garden now that he sees the results of his hard work,” said Chris Moler, of her 18-year-old son Hunter who has Down syndrome. “He wants to help around the house and do things more. He just wants to take more responsibility for things like cleaning up and taking out the trash.”
“We’ve even had parents call and say, ‘My kid is talking more now than they ever talked,’” Parkins added. “Even their manual dexterity and hands-on touching, occupational therapy, has improved.”
The students travel to the farm twice each week during harvest season — from the end of August through November and from February to the end of the school year in May. Transportation costs $25 per trip, which is paid for by the students.
“They make Buckeye jewelry and they sell that to pay for their transportation costs,” Parkins said. “We pay for it through that and donations.”
Anyone wishing to donate money to help cover transportation costs or for more information about the project, may call Parkins during school hours at 419-927-6292, ext. 2099.
By CHANDA NEELY