As soon as Brooke VanTassel started teaching at John Martin Junior High, she knew she wanted to do something different with her grade seven classes. Then she drove by The North Grove and saw the community farm.
“I thought it would be amazing if I could get some of my students involved to do farm work or help in some way. I really wanted them to have that hands-on connection to know that they can make a difference,” says Brooke.
Brooke grew up in Sackville and was always quite close to the community in Dartmouth North. Coming into her first year of teaching at John Martin Junior High, Brooke knew she wanted to give kids opportunities to build community connections.
Fast forward 10 months, and the 95 grade seven students at John Martin Junior High have contributed over 500 volunteer hours at The North Grove and are now an integral part of the community hub that’s just a five-minute walk from their school.
“It's made a world of difference in the students,” says Brooke. “Their work at The North Grove has really helped their self-development, confidence and ability to communicate and collaborate – things that can be difficult to build in the school building.”
One of the first things the students did when they joined us last September was harvesting. They helped pick the remaining root vegetables on the farm, including parsnips, carrots, turnips and radishes.
Many of the students had never seen a turnip before and had no idea that carrots had leafy greens on top. They’d only seen them in bags at the grocery store.
Every visit brought new experiences. Katherine, the Community Farm Coordinator who works with the students says the visits are the highlight of her week.
“It’s hard not to smile when I see the kids walking (or sometimes running and dancing) down the street from John Martin Junior High,” says Katherine. “My favourite thing about spending time with them is their energy, curiosity and outside-the-box humour.”
After the growing season, the students moved indoors to make meal kits for The North Grove’s low-cost produce market. Students worked in an assembly line with all the ingredients, packaging and a recipe. Together they created more than 250 kits, including spaghetti dinner, chili, chana masala and some other simple and low-cost recipes.
Then they moved on to cooking, which was extremely exciting for them. They made quesadillas, guacamole and pico de gallo, eating a quick meal before heading back to class. Many were amazed at the power they felt being able to choose what went into their own meal. Some felt so proud they insisted on bringing half home to share with their family members.
Brooke says her students come from an eclectic mix of backgrounds and experiences. Some are newcomers, navigating being in a new place; some are dealing with struggles focusing in class; others are dealing with bullying and conflict.
Isaac and Jayden are two of Ms. VanTassel’s students. They have a lot in common – their love for basketball, cooking, video games and now, The North Grove. They both agree that the 45 minutes they spend at The North Grove goes by too fast. As Isaac says, “It goes by quicker than playing a game of basketball,” - and he loves basketball.
“It makes the rest of the day better,” Isaac says.
Jayden agrees. One of the things he loves about it is how different it is from the rest of school.
Brooke says whenever the kids leave The North Grove, they ask when they will come back.
“They are so excited and proud. They have this positive energy about helping every time,” she says. “They really do feel at home there.”
Some students are now bringing family members for tours of the farm, or to pick up free produce at our market stall. They’ve also started bringing friends to our weekly community lunches, where we’re seeing intergenerational relationships taking shape as they sit at tables with our older community members. As one student puts it, “There are a lot of older people there, but it’s pretty cool”.
More than half of the grade seven students in the program are now attending the weekly community lunches. Brooke says the attendance at the community lunches has had a really positive impact on the school. “A lot of the kids don't have food with them, and we don't have a provincially-funded hot lunch program, so it's a need in our community.”
With summer break just around the corner, The North Grove is eager to keep this connection going and is launching a new youth volunteer program. The program will give students hands-on opportunities in all our program areas, from community meals to child development and more.
Jayden and Isaac have both applied. They are excited to have something to do on the weekdays in the summer.
“There are so many boundaries and rigid systems that you can't really escape when you're in the school physical building,” says Brooke. “But allowing students the space to grow outside of that – that’s where they get the learning that really matters.”
Brooke hopes this program inspires other schools to explore similar partnerships that really ground schools and their students in community.
“I’ve found that when kids are given that little bit of freedom, they really show that they can be wonderful members of the community – and they want to be.”
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