The Unwritten Curriculum

“It is said that the teacher’s presence in the classroom is the unwritten curriculum.”
-Adele Caemmerer, from “Planting Seeds; Practicing Mindfulness with Children” by Thich Nhat Hanh

At this time of year, I can always feel the dread of “back-to- school” that used to haunt me as a child. I would get it in the pit of my stomach, the feeling of anxiety over the “first day of school.” Would I make friends? Would my teachers like me? Would I like them? Even though I don’t go back to school in the fall, and my weekly students are all homeschoolers who don’t go back to school, and the refugee and shelter teens I work with are also not going back to school, I still feel the frequency everywhere. It’s in the long lines at Staples and CVS for school supplies. It’s on the sidewalks, as children return from summer camps and vacations abroad. It’s in the shopping malls and catalogs, advertising fall clothing and back-to-school fashions.

overcoming fear of bees copy

Why is it “back” anyway? We aren’t back, we have moved on. Children grow up so much in the summer time, they aren’t the same as they were. So why isn’t it “forward?” I love to say to young children on the first day I see them in the fall, “Welcome forward!” It makes them smile, because it’s different and it makes sense.

On the first day, we always talk about the quality of “respect,” how the word could mean: “to look again” (re-spect). Because we are different, we greet each other on the first day as if we don’t know each other, and so we introduce ourselves to one another as if we were just meeting. It’s a ceremony that makes everyone giggle, and yet they feel really settled afterwards, knowing they have been recognized as different, not the same as they were in the spring, and it makes them stand just a little bit taller.

I’m interested in how some public school teachers manage their classrooms, unlike the nature-based settings that I lead educational programs in. The classroom becomes like a domain, and depending on the teacher, there can be an atmosphere in the room itself that children walk into and it conditions their behavior, by how comfortable (or uncomfortable) they feel there. One teacher that I know well, keeps the fluorescent lights off in her classroom all the time, and only uses a few lamps. It makes the light so much softer, and immediately, the students register a feeling of calm in her room, and so they are calmer.

XIIsS help in the garden copy

But I also notice sometimes that teachers in some situations seem to have lost their joy of teaching, their love of children, and have become managers of behavior. They seem almost afraid to allow children to be themselves, for fear of what might happen if they get too loud or too excited. In Middle School especially, I hear teachers clapping their hands repeatedly to get their students’ attention. Or worse, one 8th grade teacher in a parochial school classroom, used to bang on one of those bells on the table until the students stopped talking. She did it incessantly: bangbangbangbangbangbangbang. It didn’t really endear them to her, and it didn’t really get their attention either.

I have heard a teacher enter the classroom and say, “Good morning everyone!” in a threatening voice and when the students repeated in a feeble monotone, “Good morning Mrs. So-and- so,” she raised her voice to a more strident pitch and repeated, “GOOD MORNING EVERYONE!” They then realized what was required and said a little more loudly in unison, “Good morning Mrs. So-and- so!” I got that feeling in the pit of my stomach, that one that came with the first day of school. It is a feeling that smells of lunchboxes and milk, cafeteria tables and garbage cans overflowing with unwanted food, and the sound of shoes squeaking on linoleum floors. It goes with wet toilet paper wads stuck on the ceiling of the bathroom that might fall on you unexpectedly, and teasing messages scratched onto the back of the door of the toilet.

It’s the feeling of being caught not knowing the answer, or not paying attention. It’s the sound of the second hand ticking on the clock on the wall, or seeing it spinning silently as you wait for the bell that releases you to the next class. It’s the banging of lockers, the smell of school bus exhaust, the voices yelling in the playground.

Do most teachers realize that what children want from them more than anything is friendship? That they desperately need the warmth, support, and encouragement of the adult in the classroom?

smiling seesaw OCC

Last spring, when I was leading “Think out of Bounds” workshops twice a week in a public school classroom, it hit me that the children were so nervous about making a mistake because their training was to only get the answer right. So that prevented them from trying new things, experimenting with ideas, and thinking in new ways.

They were inhibited because if they looked silly or stupid in some one else’s eyes, they would be laughed at. And here I was, asking them to “think outside the box,” and all they’d been taught was to stay very firmly inside that box, and I was expecting them to freely express themselves in 40 minutes, between bells.

One day after class, I saw a teenage girl shaking in the hallway, almost whispering to the teacher in the classroom, “I think I forgot my homework folder inside the room,” she was stammering. I thought to myself, why doesn’t she just say, “I left my homework folder in the room, can I please go get it?” But she was, I realized, so frightened of having lost it, of having made a mistake, of leaving it behind, and what would the teacher say, and how would she say it?

It caused me to realize that whatever I taught the children from then on, what they really needed was my genuine love and support. They needed to feel that I was inspired by them (which I was) and that I thought they were fantastic, creative people (which they were), and the more I encouraged them and expressed my real awe at what they were capable of, the more they were actually able to think outside the box. They started to astound me with their ideas, and the more I put a warm hand on their shoulders, laughed at their jokes, smiled at their attempts, the happier they got. And they became more respectful, better listeners, quicker at our games and exercises, and better team players. It was so clear to me by the end of the year, that all they really needed was the presence of a teacher who believed in them.

“The transformation of our schools and our society begins with the transformation of ourselves through the practice of cultivating mindful awareness.”

-Adele Caemmerer

Digging in the Dirt – Small-Batch Earth School

here comes the sap copy

The saying that Earth School has grown by is “small is sustainable.” It’s an essential principle of Permaculture, and for Something Good in the World it’s always related to our motto: “Small steps towards a big difference.” The concept behind grassroots activism is changing one mind at a time, or one backyard at a time. In education, small groups are key, because the more one on one there is, the more learning there can be. Mass production in education is based on Industrial Revolution motives; it’s the most economical to do large batch production. But everyone knows that homemade and handcrafted have better quality, that small-batch cookies you baked in your oven taste better than packaged, store-bought cookies, and the same principle is true for teaching children.

Whenever a school sends me a bus packed with 50 children to the farm for a two-hour program, I know that the likelihood of me reaching more than a few children is very small. It’s more economical to pack 50 children into a bus designed for 50 children and most schools simply cannot afford to send 25 at a time so that we can divide that class in half and just work with 12 in each group. But when we small-batch Earth School, we can connect with each child and make a greater impact.

Walking with a group of 50 children through the farm, it’s like speaking into a void. It makes me feel desperate. One day I reached out to a teenage girl who looked bored and miserable, as we walked from the farm to the parking lot where the students would board the bus back to school. I simply asked, “Have you ever been to a farm before?” “Yes,” she sighed, and she explained that she had grown up on a farm in Peru. “Peru?!” I exclaimed, “I love Peru! Peru is amazing!” And for a whole minute we talked about how beautiful and powerful the land is there and how she feels when she is there, and she lit up like a 1,000-watt light bulb. This is the purpose of Earth School, in the words of Jean Vanier, these are “little lights of love.”

I recently watched the documentary, “Homestretch,” that follows three case histories through the entire film. Not 50, just three. I learned so much from these three young people about the situation for teens who have no safe home to go to at night, who don’t consider themselves homeless because they do have parents or grandparents, but they are unwanted or neglected. So where do they go? Where can they find a safe place to sleep and eat? How are they going to do their schoolwork or get a job without a place to live? The film is incredibly moving and important, and it taught me a great deal about the teens I work with from the shelter, who have in some cases been abused, but in many cases simply left behind.

hands with honey

There are shelters with 300 children in them, but the one I work with houses only 12. 300 is more economical, but a shelter with only 12 beds can house siblings who need to stay connected, or children who are ill, or teenage girls who are pregnant, or anyone who needs special care and attention. Today I was at the farm with three children from this small shelter. This was not economical, but it was essential. Each child is coming from a situation at home that requires they be sheltered away from their families, under a court order of protection, and this can last anywhere from 3-6 months to a year or more until they can be returned to a home environment or fostered safely elsewhere. The teens that I meet from the shelter every month arrive in a state of pain, and they wear this on their faces and in their postures.

So I expect when they arrive at the farm that they may be angry, depressed, hurt, have a chip on their shoulder, and I know that they will likely be reticent, often withdrawn. But I also know they are children, and that warmth means everything.

This morning when it was below freezing, they did not want to get out of the car. They did not want to be outdoors. They definitely did not want a hands-on, educational experience.

egginhands copyBut I have seen it every time, and this has been month after month, year after year, for the past 10 years of working with these children: they melt. They melt like crayons in the sun. And what causes this melting? It’s different things. Today it was a chicken egg. A girl named D. peeked in the chicken coop, not daring to venture inside, but when she was handed an egg that was just removed from underneath a hen, she smiled. It was the warmth of the egg, its fineness, its blue-green color, the fact that a hen had just laid it, and the knowledge that if the hen sat on it for 21 days, it would hatch into a chick. So D. decided to wrap the egg in her gloves, and for two hours she cradled that egg, she held it underneath her armpit, she insisted that she would hatch this egg. By the end of the two hours, I had given her and the teachers contact information for borrowing an incubator, so that she could scientifically hatch the egg, being that her underarm would not be sufficient, though she was determined to try.

 

During this same time, another girl named A. simply would not come out of the car.

When she entered the zero carbon footprint, solar powered, mobile classroom, nothing impressed her. She would not look up, would not respond. She took out her makeup and began doing her eyes in a hand held mirror. She was not going to melt.

She tasted the maple sap we had collected while she sat in the car. She was not moved by this. I gave her some boiled sap to taste, and a smile came over her face by accident, when the sweetness hit her tongue. She added more to her glass.

Within one hour, she had become the cook for the day. D. took over the kitchen and prepared gluten-free pancakes with fresh maple syrup for all the students and teachers. She stood as the chef calling out, “You want a pancake? No? Come on!”

A boy named A. would not look at me or speak. He insisted on not wearing a coat in the sub freezing temperature. A teacher had the idea to give him her phone to video the workshop. For the next two hours, he became a cameraman, lit up, smiling, getting good angles, interviewing me, laughing, totally engaged. How simple, how brilliant. “I’m on CNN!” I laughed with him as I gestured to the Sugar Maple tree.

Walking back to the car with the teens at the end, I asked them to go back to the shelter and please write to me about what they learned. They did not respond, just got in the cars and shut the doors, no goodbyes, no thank yous. A minute later, the girl named A. rolled down the window. “You want us to write you about what we learned today?” she asked, her eyes serious. “Yes,” I said, “I am very interested in what you learned.” “OK,” she agreed, nodding.

One of the shelter teachers handed me a packet of letters that the teens had written the previous month. It was a different group, but we’d had the same experience.

One girl in particular had not been willing to participate or speak until we got to the part of the workshop where we sat indoors in front of a warming fireplace in the farmhouse, doing needle felting with wool. I opened her letter and read:

Dear Ms. B. and Ms. H.,

I really appreciate you inviting us to your lovely farm with all your wonderful animals. My favorite things were the baby sheep and the creative felting. You were right it does help you relax and stay calm. It was a fantastic experience while visiting your farm. The food you have given us to taste was amazing, it was very unique, it’s always wonderful to try new things in life. I loved your leadership towards us and all the knowledge you have filled our brains with. Thank you guys for all of your support and being wonderful leaders towards us.

Sincerely,
L. G.

The situation for at-risk youth has not changed in the past 12 years of my experience working with these teens. I can only quote a philanthropist who I heard interviewed once on PBS’ “Beyond the Color Line,” who said, “If you don’t consider disadvantaged youth, if you say you don’t care, that it’s not important, you are so wrong. That is like sitting in a rowboat and there’s water coming into the boat and you don’t bail it out because you say, ‘The hole isn’t under my seat.’”

In a small-batch version of that rowboat, we would all recognize that the water is coming in, and it’s our responsibility to bail it out, one bucket at a time.

Digging in the Dirt – Farm-Based Therapy

“What’s done to children, they will do to society.”
-Karl Menninger

My latest joke as a farm-based educator, which is not actually a joke, is that I tell everyone what I do is farm-based education, but that what I know inwardly is that it should be called farm-based healing. I have watched children from traumatized situations come into the farm in a completely shut down state, shields up, nerves raw, eyes downcast, hoods over heads, and within minutes, I see them transform. They laugh, they chat, and they smile, all while digging in the dirt, arranging the flowers, cradling worms in their palms. It’s nothing I do, all I do is lead them into the garden and show them what to do, the rest happens naturally, because I believe it is how we are meant to be.

Today I entered a shelter for abused teenagers who have been removed from their homes for their own safety, and refugee children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. We all introduced ourselves, and the refugees are practicing their English, saying their names, ages, and countries of origin. This is how I discover that the 7-year-old girl in the room made the journey to the US with her 11 year old brother, also in the room. We are about to plant flowers together.

HOH with flowers

When I come into a room where the children are being kept safe, I am used to a lack of response. I am all full of my cheerful enthusiasm for the work we are about to do, explaining today how it is that bulbs don’t need watering or weeding, just will appear like magic in the spring and bring inspiration to the students who will see them. I explain to them, this is a service, it’s not for them, it’s for those yet to come. These are teenagers mostly, so there’s a “Why should I have to do this?” feeling in the room, but I tell them there is only the fact that a garden is forever, that it is sometimes good to do things for other people. They accept this and follow me outdoors to plant.

I have often seen that children do not know how to dig in the dirt. I sometimes have to help them, take their hand and dig it like a shovel in the soil, so they get the idea. The shelter children especially want gloves and shovels when we start, and their hoods are over their heads. But I see how within the hour, they are intensively planting hundreds of bulbs, no longer caring that they will not be there to see the tulips when they emerge, only focused on making sure they dig down 4 inches so it will grow. Now they just care about the fact that the root side goes down and the pointy end goes up, otherwise the flower will not be able to grow.

glinda awareThese are children who really need services given to them; they probably don’t really need to be concerned about giving to others. Do they? Somehow the act of putting one’s hands in the soil and finding a worm and considering what to do with it, removing rocks that are in the way, making a bed for the flowers and tucking them in gently, something about this is analogous, and causes well-being. The same thing is true of harvesting, choosing flowers, putting them together in a bouquet just so, putting them in a jar of water. I see that the entire act of planting, weeding, watering, mulching, harvesting just makes humans feel good. Is that enough, just to feel better?

Recently, some one sent me a study called “Green Care: A Conceptual Framework” and I perused it very carefully, agreeing with every point:

■ Contact with nature is important to human beings.

■ The importance of this is often overlooked in modern living conditions.

■ People can find solace from being in natural places, being in contact with nature and from looking after plants and animals.

■ In addition to this solace, contact with nature has positive effects on well-being, with physical, psychological and spiritual benefits.

■ Existing or new therapeutic programmes could be improved by incorporating these ‘green’ elements.

■ The planning, commissioning and delivery of all health services would be enhanced by consideration of potential ‘green’ factors.

cutting flowers

After reading through the 120 pages of this detailed research, I hope that findings such as these will help more people realize the powerful effects of “green care,” so that more nature-based programs can be created and supported.

I consider myself incredibly fortunate and blessed to work with children outdoors every day, and especially to guide those from shelters into local farms or their own schoolyards to weed and plant and harvest. It is enough for me; small though it may be, and I think it is enough for them, to share that hour or two in the sunshine and open air, to feel free, and to make a difference to others who they may never meet.

bee with flower

Digging in the Dirt – Dandelions; Algo bueno en el mundo

blow2It’s a weekday morning and I am working with the refugee children from Central America. I always hesitate to call these “children,” because they are already young men and women, and they are so much more like adults than children their own age in the suburbs of Westchester. But sometimes, when they encounter something new, they are children again. This morning it is dandelions.

dandelionsIt’s really important to me that the children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala don’t lose their connection to the land and farming, even in a backyard sense. They mostly come from rural areas and many have been farming already, keeping chickens, eating local and seasonal as a natural process. Now that they are in North America, I see how they get immediately exposed to fast food and junk food and packaged, processed, unnatural and unhealthy foods – that’s what the government gives them for free.

But the refugee children are actually keenly interested in what grows here. So I take them foraging in backyards and wooded areas and meadows, because there are healthy edibles that are free. So, dandelions were ubiquitous on this one morning and they didn’t know what they were called or that they were edible, or most importantly, that once they go to seed, you can blow on them and make wishes.

gardening

The boys took those dandelions and blew the seeds with all their might, making their wishes that I could only imagine. I never saw such fervent wish making on dandelion fluff, but I felt it when they sent those seed pods soaring into the sky. As soon as they finished this part of the lesson, I saw them taking shovels and digging up dandelions from the backyard where we were studying, and I asked them what they were doing. They showed me, they were planting these in the garden.

I had come that morning to their shelter with a local farmer to help the children plant their own edible garden, one that would stay at the shelter, with perennial fruits and vegetables and flowers, and I saw such energy in the refugees for this project as they tended each plant with so much care. On another day, they came to our Children’s Peaceful Garden and helped us plant native trees, and they threw themselves into it with more vigor than I have ever seen a teenager put into working, and I asked them, have you done this before? They laughed and nodded and I could picture them at home, planting with such industry. They understood what it was for, what it meant to plant something that lasts.

So they were taking the dandelions and lovingly transplanting them into the edible perennial garden we’d just made together, because they wanted dandelions to be a part of that. Partly to eat them, but mostly I think, so they could ensure future wishes.

watering

I am supposed to be teaching them English, but so often because the students are so endearing, I am tending to learn Spanish from them more than they are learning English from me. “Algo bueno en el mundo,” they tell me, smiling, and at first I think they are talking about the dandelions, but then I realize, they are translating the name of my work, “Something Good in the World.” And as is ever the case with these children, I am honored, moved, and feel incredibly grateful to them for sharing themselves with me and for becoming citizens of this land.

Earth as Homeschool

 

digging in the dirt

The concept of a mobile classroom has come up many times this year. It’s becoming a phenomenon around where I live, in Northern Westchester County. I have already encountered three successful arts-oriented programs that have given up their expensive rented spaces and are using vans or cars instead, focusing on traveling from place to place for educational activities and as wild as it sounds, it’s working. A year ago, our tiny educational nonprofit charity, Something Good in the World, lost its lease at the County-owned farm we’d been located at for the past nine years.

a new way to digThe next location we were looking to move into wasn’t ready yet; license
agreements and permits were not in place by the time we had to leave our previous home base. The idea of shutting down just wasn’t an option. No one wanted us to stop offering programs, but we also could not find any other local farm or landowner who wanted to take on our students on a daily basis.

At that point, I read an interview with an educator who said that her favorite kind of classroom was the kind without walls and the idea struck me of a nomadic Earth as School year. I had to remind myself that our Earth School programs meant that the earth was our school, and that the concept had always been to use nature as our classroom. I thought long and hard about it, and came to the conclusion that all the children really needed was a backpack containing their lunch and a water bottle and a change of clothes, and that we needed access to bathrooms and drinking water, but other than that, we could pretty much learn anywhere.

observing beesWe had a range of partnerships at local farms that meant we could continue planting, harvesting, mulching, weeding, and doing community service. We also had friends with arts centers, studios, and living rooms or kitchens that could be adapted for the small groups of homeschoolers who participate in our programs. Not only that, but there are plenty of parks and nature centers, museums and libraries, all of which are accessible to the public for free.

So back in September of 2014, we went mobile. Now at first I thought this was
absolutely nuts, and that the teachers and parents who were excited about
embarking on this adventure with me must be equally crazy. But it turned out to be the most fun educational experience I have ever had, even if at times it was also the most stressful. For the children, it was pure heaven. They were so happy every day to turn up in a parking lot, wherever we were, and they couldn’t wait to find out where we were going that day. It was like an endless field trip. And for a child who doesn’t like to sit still, well, you can just imagine how thrilling it was to never have to sit still, unless you were having a picnic or riding a train or doing something where you had to sit down in order to be able to do it. But what I mean is: imagine education with no desks and chairs.

free time at the hudson copy

For the teachers, it has meant improvising every minute, because if you don’t
happen to have what you need in your backpack or in your car, then you have to
make it up or change the plan. It means turning on a dime, all the time, because you never know what you would encounter in the midst of a learning experience. It means thinking on your feet, being live and at the point, every minute. It is tiring, but it is also exhilarating. Because it proves that you do not need a blackboard or chalk or paper or pencils or books or tables or chairs. It has liberated me as a teacher from the notion that I need any kind of regularity, which is harder to cope with physically, but wow is it a great mental exercise to have to keep changing and never have something to fall back on. You simply cannot get comfortable.

The one thing we have that is regular is what I call our little “gold alignments,” like touchstones, that are part of our Golden Education Template (GET) curriculum. These are set up so that each day begins and ends a certain way, which means that the children know this is Earth School. At the start of the day, wherever we find ourselves, we always have our hot towels, mindfulness practice, Brain Gym exercises, and GET class songs. This tunes us to the same note, gets us ready for learning fun, and reminds us why we are doing what we are doing. Because otherwise, we’re all on different frequencies, and having these regular alignments brings us together as a team. The end of the day is similar: we have a closing off process of collecting marbles for each new thing we learned, which is a great memory exercise, but also reminds us how much we encountered that day, and our mindfulness bell seals off the process, sends us off into the wider world with a sense of quiet knowing. So no matter where we found ourselves this year, whether in a farmyard or a cultural center, a museum or a living room, we made sure that each day began and ended the same way.

drew weedsThis year of being nomadic has proven to the children that without doubt learning happens everywhere and anywhere. It confirmed to me that place-based education is the way to go – that you can go to the place that supports what you want to learn about. Studying the planet’s geologic history and finding ourselves along the Hudson River meant that the beach became our timeline and the shells and rocks formed the points on a time “squiggle” drawn with driftwood. Learning about bees meant going to a backyard farm and working with a beekeeper to set up a hive, feed the bees, taste the honey, make beeswax crafts, and help establish bee-friendly gardens. Doing community service took us to area farms to them make sheet mulch, plant a sustainable “no-mow” meadow, or harvest vegetables to transform into a meal for the local soup kitchen. The possibilities were endless, and every week left us breathless, wondering where we would find ourselves next. The uncertainty was maddening, and for parents it was admittedly tough to manage the ride-sharing logistics, but the success of learning everywhere and anywhere was powerful.

So if you ever have to do a nomadic Earth School yourself, what does it take?

1. Courage. You have to really believe in it and know that you can do it,
because otherwise, why would anyone else want to join you in it?

2. Curriculum. This is not just about wandering around wondering what you
will do and where the day will take you. It takes an enormous amount of
planning from locations to supplies, and the backbone of the plan has to be
aligned to the purpose of what you are researching and studying.

3. Collaborators. You need lots of people and organizations that understand
what you are trying to do and want to help by hosting your programs and
projects.

4. Cars. It’s crucial to have reliable vehicles and drivers, not to mention liability
insurance and waiver forms. Carpooling was a huge part of the success of
this operation, because it relieved parents of the responsibility of too much
traveling all the time, and helped save on gas.

5. Communication. Planning as much as possible in advance and
communicating these ideas through email, texting, and phone calling is
essential. Everyone has to be on board and clear about locations, directions,
timings, and ride-sharing.

6. Creativity. Because locations are constantly changing, you have to be able to
create in the moment, where you are, with what you have, and not mind that
you don’t have anything that you are used to having in a classroom. It sounds
scary, but it was constantly inspiring and confirming of human capability.

7. Chutzpah. In order to see this through, it requires other people like you,
who share your vision and are just crazy enough not to mind dropping their
children off in a parking lot with a backpack and a lunchbox, because as
parents they know they are having the adventure of their lives.

Without all of the above, don’t even try it. It’s absolutely the most inspiring and out-of-the-box experience you can have as a teacher. It teaches students incredible adaptability and it allows the recognition of what simplicity there is in using the Earth as school. One parent referred to it as Life Camp. One teacher suggested we call it Earth as Home School.

At the same time, I can only recommend that at some point, you do try it. The whole experience is completely child-like. I remember in the first week of our nomadic situation, we were walking up a driveway looking for whatever we could find in nature that we thought was interesting and putting these treasures into a paper bag for creating a project with later. The children were ecstatic, just finding pinecones and special stones, acorn caps and mossy fragments. One little girl exclaimed, “I love this!” and the words spilled out of her mouth with laughter, and I will never forget the simplicity of that moment. It was like she was saying, “This is school?”

insect hotel

Proud to know you

HOH seesawAfter six months of working with refugee children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, I have become aware of the power of what even one hour can do for a life. It is an honor to work with these children, because I cannot imagine surviving what they have, and what impresses me the most about them is their resilience. Maybe it is the force of childhood, but when a 14-year-old has experienced starvation, deprivation, oppression, and been faced with the very real possibility of dying, it is incredible to look into his shining eyes and see that he is able to process all of those experiences and still be able to smile and to trust.

boys in bootsAnd in working with these teenagers, what I witness over and over is the value of a day in the fresh air, of warmth and care and nurturing, of healthy food and laughter, of playtime and the recognition that these are, after all, children. I watched a boy skipping down the dirt road at a farm today, and knew that just a week ago, he had been swimming across a body of water to get to the United States. He had also explained that two others who crossed with him had drowned. I marveled at the strength of the human spirit, of the energy of the child, who could live through this experience and not be destroyed by it.

HOH_in_the_fieldsI gingerly suggested to the director of the shelter where the refugees are held for a week before they come to our farm-based programs, that the children seemed as if they were starving. Though they eat a meal before joining us, they are hungry when they arrive, and while we harvest in the fields, they are eating what they have in their hands, and when we prepare the vegetables in the workshop, they eat everything they have made. She confirmed they have been starving. When she interviews the children upon arrival, she asks them what they have been eating while held at the border. Cookies and juice, one group told her. No, she said, that was your snack, what were you eating for meals? Cookies and juice they affirmed. Four times a day, cookies and juice, for 10 – 20 days. Sometimes, a ham sandwich, at most once a day. There are no showers, no change of clothes., no way of taking care of their own hygiene.

HOH_prepares_kale_saladSo what is the value of care and comfort, if only for a week or a day? Does it make a difference if you feel welcomed, respected, appreciated, listened to, just for a short time? I believe there is such a thing as short-term impact. I received a thank you note from a young refugee child in one of our programs and her words express it best: “First I want to give you thanks for having treated us so well. You are beautiful people, I personally think. I also give you thanks for having given me such an unforgettable experience in visiting the farm. I think that I will never forget what I saw with you. The apple trees, having been able to eat an apple, even though it was very small was delicious! But the biggest impact was the tomatoes. They were exquisite. What was the most moving experience was being able to pick the vegetables and fruits and then make our own salad with my own hands. It was fresh and delicious.”

HOH tire swingI cannot get out of my mind today how the teenagers were discussing, in Spanish, the way they felt when they were arrested, surrounded by the police at the border. They were comparing their experiences, agreeing that they thought they were dead, that the police were taking them to their own funeral. The translator who came with them to our farm-based program asked them, how do you feel right now? Happy, one girl smiled. Free, said one boy. Peaceful, said another. It reminds me of home, said one and everyone murmured assent. They all came from farms, some with 12 chickens or 60 chickens, some with horses, many knew how to operate farm equipment, and all knew how to harvest.

bike blender HOH-2While they are with us, we teach them what can be foraged freely in the woods and fields, what can be grown in their own backyards, how to cook or prepare or preserve these new foods. They make roasted tomatillo salsa with us, kale salad, plates of raw veggies with dip – all ways of taking what is local, seasonal, fresh, organic, and turning it into a delicious treat. Bike blender smoothies continue to be a favorite, and fresh strawberries from our gardens, potatoes grown in our potato bags, sunchokes pulled from the ground, and of course riding the seesaw to pump water.

HOH_harvestI am grateful to know these children, to have this chance to make a short-term impact in their young lives. And contrary to how this issue is portrayed in the media, I am proud to have these amazing children become a part our nation. I tried my best to express this in a note I recently sent to a group of young men in the shelter for refugees: “I was so impressed with your warmth and kindness, your hardworking nature, your seriousness and your smiles. You are amazing young men, and you are adding something very important to the United States. North America is lucky to have you living here now, because your qualities are so valuable in the world, and you will make a big difference wherever you go. Thank you for helping me, and for helping your school gardens to look beautiful and continue to grow and flourish for all the children yet to come. Next spring, the children will not know who to thank, because they will not have met you. But I will know what you did for them, for me, for the school, and for the earth. You are exceptional people, and I am impressed by your energy, and I am proud to know you.”

Comfort in the meantime

tomatoesBack in the early spring of 2014, I was approached by the director and staff members of a shelter in Westchester County, because they were about to embark on a new project and they wanted my help. They told me that they were going to be receiving a group of 12 children each month who were refugees from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Would I please create an Earth School-to-Farm program for them, they asked, because if I did, they said they knew it would succeed. I remember feeling that they had more confidence in me than I did in myself, having never put together a bilingual program before, and I didn’t know anything at the time about the refugee children.

carrots3In subsequent weeks, I researched whatever I could online and also spoke with friends who were more experienced in the issues surrounding the immigration of these children. I had been told that the students would be primarily teenage girls, but I didn’t know why they were crossing the border, or what they had gone through to get there.

I knew one thing from all my years of working with teenagers – they love to eat. And I thought what more fun way to experience life in America, than to try new foods, especially if they were delicious, and to create a workshop where the teens could taste local, seasonal, organic treats that they have never experienced before. I knew that they had been detained at the border, kept at the shelter, and that now this would be their first time out in nature, so even that would be fun for them.

digging_carrotsTwo days before working with the girls, I went to the shelter to meet them. They were so full of life, so vibrant, happy, shining, and excited. What struck me immediately was that they were children, just like children anywhere in the world. They wanted to meet the cows, the horses, they were full of chatter and questions. They were warm, sweet, and polite.

carrots2After meeting the girls, I sat with the educators and director of the shelter to hear the background stories of where they had come from. I have never been the same since, and though I cannot write here all of the atrocities which were described to me that these girls had been through, I can say that no child should ever have these experiences. From gang warfare to murder to human trafficking, these beautiful teenage girls had made it from thousands of miles away to get to this point where they were rescued and safe. They had walked across deserts with no food or water for 5 days. They had witnessed others dying around them, and yet they survived and were caught by US Immigration and almost miraculously brought to this shelter so they could be reunited with their families in the New York area.

picking_beansI cried the whole way to teach the workshop, and I cried the whole way home afterwards. But while being with the teenage girls, some of whom were pregnant, I saw and felt their desperation to learn English, to find a new home here, to have peaceful life in this new culture. I loved listening to them comparing how they harvested chickens on their farms at home, it was so matter of fact. Their favorite things were the strawberries we picked, they had never had these. They had never tasted any of the berries we tasted – blackberries, raspberries, blueberries – these were seen in stores or heard of, but no one knew how to grow them. They were so excited to begin their new lives and grow their own berries.

At the end of the workshop they hugged us and hugged us. Each one wrote a letter describing what she learned, what she appreciated. And within 24 hours, they were all being placed with their sponsoring families, and we began to look forward to the next group of girls we would meet the following month.

tasting_peasBut the next month, the director called to tell me that the new group was not comprised of teenage girls. These were children, she said, ages 6 – 11. I could not actually fathom what she was saying. “What?” I asked, “Children are crossing the border alone at that age, how is that possible?” The newspapers had started to explode with facts about this wave of immigration, and photos were published of thousands of young children lying on the cold floor of an airplane hanger, covered only with those silver emergency blankets. The director told me the children arrived at her shelter sick, hungry, having not been able to clean themselves properly, covered in lice they had gotten from the facilities at the border. One child had slept on a cold floor for 23 days, and was now suffering a high fever.

I couldn’t cry this time, because I was in shock. It didn’t make any kind of logical sense to me. How could a child leave his or her family at such a young age and make such a dangerous journey? It had been explained to me by the director that the children would die if they stayed home, so they might as well make the journey, at least they had a chance if they made it here. Back home, if they didn’t join a gang, they would be killed. If they joined the gang, they might still be killed or be forced to kill others. Girls were sent by their mothers to make this journey so they wouldn’t become slaves.

moment_with_carrotAgain I went to the shelter first, before doing the program, because I wanted to meet the children. And again, they were like all little children in the world. They were young, energetic, silly, jumping around, smiling, laughing, and sweet as can be. But there was a difference between them and the older teens in the last group. These little children were tiny, skinny, had dark circles under their eyes, and they wore the trauma on their faces, where the teens had been better able (maybe) to process it or to hide it. This trauma you could see.

A few days later they arrived at the farm, excited to learn English, to harvest foods to eat, and to meet the animals. But these children, when we got into the farm fields, they began to eat and eat. As we harvested, they were eating with two hands: a tomato in one hand, a carrot in the other. I have seen this two-fisted eating before in my own daughter when we first brought her home from the orphanage in China. She ate and ate like that. I knew they were hungry, in a deep way, that kind of hunger where you eat as if you might never get any more to eat. When we prepared a salad with the veggies they’d harvested, they ate it in silence, just like my daughter used to eat without talking, because she just needed to eat.

HOH_at_glynwoodAt the end of the workshop, the chef at the farm brought the children a treat. She had made them fresh-squeezed lemonade and homemade sugar cookies from scratch, in the shapes of farm animals. The housekeeper brought them fruit pops. Again, the children ate in silence, going back furtively for seconds.

In the days that followed, I thought often of what we had been able to give them before they were placed with their families. I came to the term, “comfort in the meantime.” It was a respite, it was a brief introduction to their new lives, it was showing them what was now possible.

A few days later, I received this letter from one of the refugees, an older teenage girl who was actually detained from Latvia, not Central America. But she was able to write in English and describe what I think all of the girls were feeling, that she could put into words:

refugee_seesaw“I wanted to say that I am really happy that I had this chance to visit you and your farm. I am really glad that while I am here I meet people with the heart in the right place. I am here almost two months and it was the first time I finally ate something fresh that I used to eat at home. Little cherry tomatoes reminded me of my home, my mum, how every morning she goes after fresh cherry tomatoes, salads, berries and other delicious things. And your lemonade was something WOW! I got a crush on your lemonade, it was the best drink I have tried while I am here. Also salads were really good and homemade cookies. There’s nothing better than fresh and homemade food, everyone knows that. I appreciate that I had this chance to visit nice people and that you gifted me a great time. Thank you for everything!”

refugee_smoothieI really can’t speak to the politics of the immigration situation, but I can say that no child should be exposed to the unspeakable horrors of what was described to me. Deport them? I can’t imagine doing this. I want to stand at the border with open arms, and cups of lemonade.