Sustainability and community are more than just buzzwords in the education of some students at Bensalem’s Shafer Middle School.
Three years ago, the school received a grant from the Norman Raab Foundation that not only gave them funding to build a garden behind the school, but allowed the opportunity for students to help organizations nearby.
“It gives $5,000 to the kids from year two on to identify community organizations that need help,” said Erin Conlen, a teacher at Shafer who runs the program.
Students select seven organizations to interview, but are allowed to pick only four to receive funds.
“All the interviewing is done by the kids,” Conlen said. “The adults come in, stand in front of them and they grill the adults.”
They ask questions about how the funds will be used to help other kids and how they improve the community. It’s a professional process — students weigh their options, do thorough research and collectively decide which organizations need funding most and for what programs.
“You want to give to everyone, but you can’t,” Conlen said. “You have to make that sad decision. You have to decide which people really need money more than the others.”
This year, the students distributed funds to the Valley Youth House, Advocates for Homeless and Those In Need, Aark Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center and Family Services of Bucks County through this program.
To the same end, all the food grown in the school’s garden goes to community organizations. After it is harvested, school nurse Kathleen McLaughlin takes it to Libertae, a Bensalem organization that helps to empower women recovering from addiction and their families. Students contribute to this organization and fund the garden project through fundraising ideas, like selling soft pretzels in the school.
Other food items go to Cornwells United Methodist Church food pantry, which both supplies food items for people in need and regularly prepares shared meals for the community.
The garden also teaches students lessons in wildlife, sustainability, science and healthy eating.
Students maintain garden beds full with lettuces, cucumber, squash, watermelon, peppers, string beans and more. There is also a serenity garden with flowers, walking stones, milkweed, a small bench and other items. They made elements of that garden attractive to monarch butterflies, bees and hummingbirds as a way to interact with local wildlife.
Inside the school is a garden tower. The tower was purchased via leftover funds from the Raab foundation’s original contribution and a separate grant. It does not use soil, but instead moss and sod holds the water, and air and water are cycled through the root systems. To produce lettuce, basil, cucumber and tomato plants, the tower uses 10 percent less water than it would need if they were planted in the garden outside.
In addition to this are rain barrels and plans to install solar lights. Before it caved in under the weight of last January’s blizzard, there was also a greenhouse. Those involved in the program hope that the greenhouse can be repaired through volunteer work.
Conlen also invited people in the community, who may live in apartments or other homes without space to garden, to use some of the space behind the student garden. Carol Corbi, a retired community member, volunteers with the students and was able to make her own plot, where she grows vegetables. She also donated the bench for the serenity garden.
While most of the work is done by students, Conlen, Corbi, McLaughlin, teacher Russ Grayson and Shafer Principal William Incollingo have provided support and allowed these programs to flourish.
When talking with students, the benefits are immediately clear.
“I like helping the environment and getting involved with other living things,” Shafer student Shawn Marcucci said. “Also it’s helping the community, you get to do stuff that most students at other schools don’t get to do.”