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Published: Saturday, 8/28/2010

Autism Academy harvests bounty at its garden party

BY CLAUDIA BOYD-BARRETT
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Toledo ZOOTeen Jennifer Hollen helps Kyle Hammond pick tomatoes. Friday's 'End of Summer Garden Party' featured produce from the Autism Academy of Learning's community garden. Toledo ZOOTeen Jennifer Hollen helps Kyle Hammond pick tomatoes. Friday's 'End of Summer Garden Party' featured produce from the Autism Academy of Learning's community garden.
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Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and greens were as plentiful as the cookies Friday at the Autism Academy of Learning's "End of Summer Garden Party."

Fifty-five students aged 6 to 21 turned out to harvest a bountiful array of produce from the school's community garden, a swath of green behind the academy on Page Street in central Toledo. Toledo Mayor Mike Bell also stopped by to help.

Anthony Gerke, education director for the publicly funded school, started the garden in May with volunteer help from the Toledo Zoo ZOOTeen Program and the gardening outreach program Toledo Grows.

The school also received a $500 donation from Aarons, Inc., to pay for gardening equipment.

Since then, students at the school have been learning to plant seeds, water, and weed the vegetable beds. They also harvest the produce, which is donated to the Assumption Outreach Center, a local food pantry.

All of the students at the school suffer from varying degrees of autism, a disorder affecting development of the brain. Children with autism perceive the world differently than most people and have difficultly communicating and interacting socially.

Mr. Gerke, who staff and students now jokingly refer to as "Farmer Anthony," said the garden serves as an "outdoor classroom" where students can learn a variety of skills. The main purpose, he said, is to provide vocational training.

Latesha Bolden, left, is assisted by teacher aide Jessica Haley during the garden party where Latesha and her classmates harvested the vegetables. 
Latesha Bolden, left, is assisted by teacher aide Jessica Haley during the garden party where Latesha and her classmates harvested the vegetables.
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"A lot of these students when they graduate from high school, it's not certain what they'll be doing next," he said. "This is really just one more thing we can do to help them prepare for their lives."

The garden - 13 raised boxes measuring 8 by 4 feet - holds other lessons for the students as well. In caring for the plants, they gain experience of working together and learn about where their food comes from. By touching, observing, and tasting the plants the students gain new sensory awareness that helps with their development, Mr. Gerke said.

One key skill the children develop by working in the garden is patience, said school founder and board president Carol Holmes. She said waiting is one of the hardest skills for autistic kids to learn.

"[The garden] teaches them cause and effect, to understand the growth process," Ms. Holmes said. "It's a reward to them because they can see the finished product of all the work that goes in."

Isiah Vauthan, a 13-year-old student at the school, said his favorite part of working in the garden is picking the produce and watering the plants.

"I like the peppers," he said. " My mom makes them for dinner."

Kyle Ward, 21, said he likes picking the vegetables too, and wants to help in the garden next year.

"I like smelling the tomatoes," he said. "They smell very good."

The students aren't the only ones learning from the garden. Mr. Gerke said he'd never done any gardening before, but after learning so much in the school's garden he's started growing his own vegetables at home.

He's hopeful the school can continue the garden next year, and eventually expand it with the help of donations.

"Some day I'd like to see a greenhouse, and be able to grow produce throughout the year," he said.

Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett at: cbarrett@theblade.com or 419-724-6272.



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