Reno Community Gives a Cooperative Effort

Reno, NV | November 2011 | By National Recreation and Park Association

Reno Community Gives a Cooperative Effort 410

Reno’s youth garden is located at the Evelyn Mount Northeast Community Center. This center, which is located in a low-income neighborhood, hosts a Parks and Recreation program called Vacation Station. Many of Reno’s elementary schools are on a year-round schedule, in which the children go to school for 10 weeks followed by four weeks off throughout the year. Every few weeks a group of children cycles from school to off time. Vacation Station provides recreational activities for those children, aged 6 to 12, during their off-time. These activities serve from 20 to 50 children at one time. They are from a wide range of income and race-ethnic groups. The activities are led by young adults in the 16-to-25 age range. Most are college students or, in the summer, high school students. The children’s gardening project was a recent addition to Vacation Station’s programming.

Reno Parks and Recreation has been involved in children’s gardening for a number of years. The Junior Ranger Garden, a summer program run by city park rangers, was active until 2010, when park rangers were laid off due to budget reductions. At about the same time, the city received its NRPA grant, at which point the children’s garden was integrated into Vacation Station’s programming and became a year-round project. The garden is located in what was a large, unused, fenced space that had once been a playground at the recreation center.

Two of the main goals of the program are to introduce the children to fresh food and to growing their own food. Peggy Nelson-Aguilar, Recreation Supervisor in the Parks Division of the Parks and Recreation Department, mentioned that a lot of the children “didn’t even know that food grew in the ground. …The neat thing was they were willing and are willing to try anything.” Because the children attend Vacation Station in cycles, one child will take home a vegetable or a plant that another child planted six weeks before. That way, the kids get to see plants in various stages of growth, and they get to see immediate success. Even though their seeds may not be ready to sprout, someone else’s seeds that were planted weeks before are sprouting and maybe are even ready to harvest. A month or two from now, their seeds will have sprouted and another child will take that plant home, and the cycle continues.

NRPA funding enabled the children’s garden to develop in several important ways. Ms. Nelson-Aguilar was able to hire a three-quarter time staff person to run the gardening program. An enthusiastic gardener, Larrie has expanded the program by cooking with the children and sending the children home with produce and recipes that feature what they grow in the garden. She also provides an educational component on plants as well as art activities. The grant also enabled Ms. Nelson-Aguilar to buy a greenhouse for the program. The children had been going to the large greenhouse five miles away to do gardening-related activities, like planting or cleaning pots, when it was too cold to work outside. Because of the distance, the children had to be transported there, taking this time away from the activities. The new, smaller greenhouse is located on-site at the recreation center.

Ms. Nelson-Aguilar has thought of some innovative ideas and has established a number of internal and external partnerships that have helped to develop the program and will help to sustain it into the future. The private company that the city contracts with for trash removal and recycling has met with the children several times to talk about recycling and composting. Ms. Nelson-Aguilar found a number of seed companies on the Internet and wrote to all of them. Before long, she received $2,000 to $3,000 worth of seeds in the mail at no cost, and now boxes of free seeds arrive every year! The kids also harvest seeds at the end of the summer for planting next year. In addition, every spring, they plant more than they will need. When the plants get big enough, the staff organizes a plant sale with about 1,000 to 1,500 plants. They sell out every year, and at a dollar a plant, the sale earns enough to buy any new gardening supplies that are needed. The cooperation of city departments has also been essential. The Youth Division of Parks and Recreation runs Vacation Station, and the children’s garden has been integrated into that program, which in turns partners with the public school system. Ms. Nelson-Aguilar also worked with the city’s Public Works Department to create a ramp for the children’s garden to make it wheelchair-accessible and with Park Maintenance to build the greenhouse and provide irrigation. The operating budget combined with the plant sale, seed donations, and the help received from other city departments provide enough resources to sustain the program. As Ms. Nelson-Aguilar stated, “…whenever I ask for help, whether it be from Park Maintenance for our irrigation issues, or to help construct the greenhouse or … trying to get the ADA ramp …, every [city] department that I’ve asked for help has just been willing and jumped right in. … Everybody just likes the idea of what we are doing, so they want to make sure it happens.”

Ms. Nelson-Aguilar feels the greatest success is “… that the kids are actually eating things that they never thought they would. And the fact that they like it. I think one of the biggest successes I’ve felt is a 22-year old who had never had salad before. … And now he [asks] when are we going to have salad again? I mean to me, that was the biggest success ever.”