Nov 16th, 2014

VCU Service Learning Students Find A Love of Gardening & Giving Back

by Jonah Holland, PR & Marketing Coordinator, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden 

Radhika Patel

Radhika Patel watering the cabbages.

Earlier this fall I ran into three young people just ending their shift at the Community Kitchen Garden.  They were younger than our typical Community Kitchen Garden volunteers and I immediately noticed them because they were all wearing VCU  shirts, my alma mater. Typically, we see alot of individuals volunteer in the CKG, and we see lots of larger corporate groups too. But this threesome seemed different.  I could tell they were tight-knit, focused, and their sense of ownership of the place told me they were regular volunteers.  I could sense a feeling from them — a sort of glow, passion, combined with hard work, and sense of purpose. It reminded me of the feeling you get after a really good run added together with the extraordinary feeling of knowing you are doing something great to help others.  And now I was curious to learn who these young adults were.

Radhika Patel, Gaurav Gupta, and Sam Salmassi are pre-med students earning their degree in biology. They are part of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Service-Learning program — part of which includes working volunteering weeding, planting, harvesting and watering the vegetables in the Community Kitchen Garden growing food for non-profit FeedMore, serving Central Virginia’s neediest citizens. I have to admit, I was a little surprised at first that pre-med students would be interested in gardening, or even have time for it.

Sam Salmassi

L Sam Salmassi watering in the Community Kitchen Garden behind the Conservatory.

Student Sam Salmassi explains how he became interested, “I originally took the class Bio 217 Principles of Nutrition with professor Jill Reid. She was all about organic farming and that’s driven me towards this (service-learning) class working in the Community Kitchen Garden….Everything we’ve done here has been new to me. Originally, I knew nothing about planting or gardening.” But now they know so much.

Students in “Insects & Plants Service-Learning,” taught by Karen M. Kester, with a community partner (Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Shalom Farms or Maymont) and on an ongoing class project, “The Bug Garden”  at James River Park, for 40 hours during the semester. In addition, they learn to diagnose and control insect pests encountered in their work using sustainable methods and as a final project, design a vegetable garden with companion plantings.

“When they encounter an insect pest problem the students pull together to research and diagnose the problem and and organic solution,” Kester says.  The final project for the service-learning students here  in the Community Kitchen Garden is to design next year’s demonstration garden — the garden you see in the photos to the left. The focus of that design will be using companion plantings to discourage insect pests and using other best practices like crop rotation to discourage harmful insects.

Lynn Pelco, Ph.D., Associate Vice Provost for Community Engagement and Acting Director of VCU ASPiRE, really helped me see the importance of this program in making a difference when she explained, “Service-learning is different from volunteering in that the students in service-learning classes are connecting the academic content of their course to the learning they gain from doing a service project in the community.  At VCU service-learning classes require students to complete a minimum of 20 hours of service during the semester and to reflect on the  connections between their service project and the academic content of the class.”

“When we started working here (back in early September) the plants were really small. I like seeing them grow,” says  Radhika Patel. It’s obvious to me that the plants aren’t the only thing here flourishing and thriving. There’s just something about the  way these students talk that inspires me and makes me happy. Something that makes me want to give back to the community too.

Salmassi says, “I like it because you are not cooped up in a classroom. You don’t get this kind of experience anywhere else. The work really exhausts you, but in a good way. This is learning by doing.”   But the three of them agree, most of all it’s  the giving back that is the biggest reward.  They enjoy going to drop off the produce at Feedmore with CKG horticulturist Laura Schumm, they weigh the produce and see the kitchen where it will be cooked into meals for home-bound seniors through Meals on Wheels, and worked into kid-friendly lunches and snacks for Kids Cafe.

 Student Gaurau Gupta watering in the Community Kitchen Garden

Gaurav Gupta watering the lettuce in the Community Kitchen Garden.

They take pride and ownership over the Community Kitchen Garden now. Gaurav Gupta says “Weeding is very satisfying — honestly I have no idea why I like it. But it’s doing it your way ….it almost becomes your home here, something you nurture and take care of. One day I took an extra 20 minutes and weeded all the (wild) mushrooms.” Gupta explains that while his father used to always ask for help in the garden back home, he had no interest. But now, he’s discovered he loves gardening and will be helping out back home in Ashburn, Va when he visits.  Gupta says he enjoys it so much that he’d like continue volunteering in the Community Kitchen Garden after he graduates.

“Being pre-med, it’s ‘Go! Go! Go!’ — the pace of life is accelerated.  But here you gain perspective in a sense. ….Here at the Community Kitchen Garden, It’s the pace life should be,”  Salmassi says.

And, well, everyone likes to harvest.  “Pulling the carrots was so fun! It was like a surprise when you pull them out of the ground,” Patel says.

As part of the Service-Learning Program at VCU, students have to write a reflection at the end of the semester.  Stay tuned, we hope to share some of those here on the blog later this winter. If you’d like to learn more about Service-Learning at VCU, here’s a video that explains other ways VCU Service-Learning Students are engaged and helping communities in Richmond. 

Jonah Holland is Digital Content Manager at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, where she has worked for 14 years overseeing social media, the blog, and the website. She is also a mom, yogi, open water swimmer, gardener, and seeker. She's been known to go for a walk in the Garden and come back with hundreds of plant photos, completely inspired to write her next blog post.

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