A grant and green thumbs turn scrub dirt into a living classroom

May 27, 2011 3:02:00 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Waylon Kelly walks among the butterfly bushes (buddleja davidii, to the purist) intrigued by lance-like clusters of tiny purple flowers in the new butterfly and reading garden at his elementary school.  


Under May''s powder blue sky, the 8-year-old moves from plant to plant, trying to detect a fragrance, trying to unravel why the summer lilac, as it''s also called, is an irresistible feast for so many beautifully-caped visitors. 


Nearby, a friend opens a book, enjoying one of the many benches positioned around the garden, providing front-row seats to nature''s show.  


Thanks to a grant from Lowe''s, an alert principal, enterprising teachers and a lot of friends from Mississippi State University, the boys -- and their 363 classmates at East Oktibbeha County Elementary School -- are discovering wonders in the great outdoors. 


"I''ve seen lots of butterflies around the garden," says student Kasey Trainer, the 8-year-old daughter of Orlando and Kareader Trainer. "They like to play and smell and eat the flowers. They fly around and sparkle ... they''re so pretty!" 




The plant ladies 


It was Principal Yolanda Magee who first discovered the Lowe''s Toolbox for Education grant program online. 


"We thought this would be a good way to enhance the outside area past our cafeteria and provide an outside extension to the classroom," said the administrator. 


Knowing that Pre-K and Inclusion teacher Jean Higginbotham had a bona fide green thumb, Magee tapped her, along with fellow Inclusion and second-grade teacher Terra Bryant, to apply for the funds that would make a butterfly garden possible. 


Higginbotham was a natural, having done work study in the biology greenhouse at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas, before earning her master''s degree at MSU. Her husband holds a degree in horticulture and worked in the agricultural greenhouse. 


Bryant had taken a grant-writing course at MSU, so the two teachers combined their strengths to develop a grant-winning submission to enhance learning and beautify the school.  


"I call her the plant lady," Bryant smiles, referring to her project partner, who originally planned and sketched out the garden on paper. 


Higginbotham interjects, "We just thought, what a great opportunity to put something here, where there was nothing. We wanted to have a place where kids would sit and read." 


After the grant was submitted, months went by with no word.  


"I''d pretty much given up, because it took a little while to hear back," recalls Bryant. But when Principal Magee summoned her to the office one day last fall for the news that Lowe''s had awarded the school $3,400, Bryant couldn''t wait to tell her collaborator. 




Enter Day One 


In a win-win partnership, the elementary school teamed with MSU''s Day One Leadership program, designed to promote leadership development and community and civic responsibility specifically for incoming freshmen. Day One service learning projects have been carried out at agencies including Habitat for Humanity, Boys and Girls clubs, Sally Kate Winters Family Services, Camp Seminole and, of course, numerous schools. 


At East Oktibbeha, Day One teams installed new soil and plantings already purchased. (They also installed a playground maze of sunken tires and tutored children, as well.) 


"Those MSU students came out and so worked hard, because this was just dirt, and it was like a rock," Higginbotham praises, pointing to the area now covered in mulch, small crepe myrtles and butterfly bushes. Bird baths accent each end of the compact garden, inviting feathered friends to stop in to cool off. Four newly-planted maples nearby will one day mature to offer welcome shade for sidewalks and classrooms. The grant also provided for necessary equipment, including a tiller, wheelbarrow and shovels. 


"We''ve worked with East Oktibbeha two full years; they''re a great partner," said Day One''s Carmen Wilder, assistant director for student leadership and community engagement. "We accept up to 300 freshmen each year and work with roughly 35 to 40 agencies (including schools). We look for places that are in need of volunteers and match students with an agency we think they would enjoy." 




Thumbs up 


The collaborative garden project has drawn rave reviews. 


"Here it is, attracting beautiful butterflies and birds," says Magee, justifiably proud. 


"And we''ve had such a big, positive reaction from the kids," Higginbotham notes. 


Eight-year-old Willie Parks, the son of Vicki and Lennard Brown, perhaps expressed it best. 


"I think it''s really great so butterflies can come, because they''re part of Jesus'' nature; he is the one who created them," he said, describing cocoons he watched open. "It was amazing that they were coming out. ... They were purple and blue, some were polka dot, and some were black and yellow ... They really did like the flowers!" 


Bryant and Higginbotham take satisfaction in a "good job done." 


"Just seeing children have pleasure in reading out there is rewarding," Bryant said. And from her colleague, who is already planning garden additions, "I''m proud every time I walk past it; it just makes me feel good." 


Lowe''s Toolbox for Education program, funded by the Lowe''s Charitable and Educational Foundation, is in its fifth year of helping build better schools and communities. To date, it has provided more than $20 million to nearly 5,000 schools across the country. The fall grant cycle is set to open for applications in mid-July and will close Oct. 14, according to toolboxforeducation.com, where criteria and applications can be found. 


"This was our first attempt, so it''s worth trying for," encouraged Higginbotham. "We never dreamed we would get it, but we did!" 


In a time when school districts, parents'' groups and community partners are struggling to make ends meet, perhaps you know of a place where the sparkle of a butterfly wing, in whatever form it may take, could make a difference.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.