Members of the Lake Highlands Chapter of Young Men’s Service League (YMSL) could have spent the weekend after Homecoming sleeping in or hanging with the crowd at a friend’s lake house. Instead, they worked alongside their moms, elbows-deep in peat moss and vegetable plants. They were working on YMSL’s “Ultimate Gift” – a fruit and vegetable garden for Pease Elementary in southern Dallas.
YMSL is a national nonprofit which pairs high school boys and their moms for service projects and leadership opportunities. Each year, YMSL chapters complete projects in their community over one day or one weekend, and the LH group chose to refurbish and expand the small, overgrown garden at Dallas ISD’s Elisha Pease. The school’s neighborhood near I-45 and Loop 12 is a food desert, meaning families don’t have access to a grocery store within 3 miles. Their food choices are mostly limited to a fried chicken joint, a liquor store and a Dollar General.
Will Jamison, a sophomore at LHHS, spent lots of time at the farm at Moss Haven Elementary during his 7 years as a student there. He’s hoping the kids at Pease will take away what he learned – the joy of planting a seed and watching it grow.
“This farm hasn’t been touched for a while, so we’re pulling out weeds and adding fruits and vegetables,” he told me. “Farm was one of my favorite classes at Moss Haven, because we’d be outside enjoying nature and having fun with friends.”
Freshman Joe Warden, another Moss Haven alum, figured he knew where groceries came from when he walked on campus.
“Your mom just went to the store and got them off the shelf,” Warden laughed. “On the farm I learned you have to plant them and grown them – that’s what most kids don’t see.”
While he was planting lettuce and pruning fruit trees in the garden at Pease, Nicholas Aiken, a Richardson High School senior, was imagining the students who’d be studying there.
“Science class will be a lot more exciting,” he said proudly. “They’ll be learning about plants and agriculture and having fun doing it. I’m hoping these kids will want to have their own garden when they get older. Most of this service we do – it’s just fun. It’s fun putting these projects together and seeing the impact we have in the community.”
LHHS senior Joseph Potter always had a garden as a kid, so digging in the dirt at Pease felt like slipping into an old shoe.
“We grew tomatoes, basil – whatever we could use for cooking,” he said. “Getting outside and helping other people is a really fun thing to do. It’s not really complicated – all you need are the resources, plus a little bit of work and dedication.”
Potter also learned about farming while a student at Lake Highlands Elementary, where students grew fruits and vegetables in an outdoor courtyard. They, too, were amazed to learn that food doesn’t just magically appear at the grocery store.
“These gardens teach kids that there are healthier options out there,” Potter said. “It’s rewarding to grow food and eat what you’ve grown.”
Kim Aman, known as “Farmer Aman” to hundreds of students since the Moss Haven Farm was founded in 2004, created Grow Garden Grow in collaboration with Grow North Texas to encourage school gardens throughout North Texas. She’s particularly focused on assisting campuses which lack active parent groups and the resources to build and maintain farm facilities. The LH YMSL has helped her install and refurbish several other gardens, and she was on hand to oversee the Pease project.
“My goal is to get a garden in every school in Texas,” Aman said. “I’ve been going to the legislature, and I’ve been going to nonprofits to make this happen.”
Aman secured a grant from the Dallas County Health Department to enable the YMSL to plant fruit trees, artichokes, blackberries, grapes, herbs and other easy-to-maintain fruits and vegetables. She’s also working with United to Learn, an organization which grants schools’ wishes, and she’s found there are many schools in the metroplex that dream of having a garden for their students. As she directed YMSL volunteers, she took time to explain, not just how to do their task, but why.
“I want to give kids a reason for what they are doing. I’m planting the seed. One day these boys will become homeowners, and it costs lots of money to have someone come take care of your yard or plant fruit trees on your property. I’m trying to build this movement and help it go everywhere – not just to schools with big PTAs and big budgets.”
Tanishia Horton, a science teacher at Pease, commissioned a butterfly mural on the school’s outer wall. She recruited students and fellow teachers to help with the YMSL project.
“The students learn so much from this garden,” said Horton. “We tie it all to the Texas education standards – life cycles, soil, biodiversity, how plants and insects grow, how they reproduce. Everyone wants to come look and taste and touch and smell. It’s an experience they don’t normally have in this community. When you are part of creating a project like this, you respect it more – you want to take care of it and keep other from vandalizing it. These teachers and students wanted to have a role in making it their own.”
Now that Caroline Haness’ son Owen is a senior, it’s been tougher to find things for them to do together. YMSL is an opportunity, she said, to volunteer and spend time on a project which will have long-lasting impact in the community.
“It’s great to instill a desire to serve people,” Haness said. “It excites me to see him with his friends – working side-by-side with kids from other grades or other schools or other friend groups. It’s good to see the sweat equity, too. A lot of volunteering is just bringing stuff. This is doing.”