Chester students rebuild garden where vandals struck

Students at Stetser Elementary School plant raspberry bushes as they work to repair a garden (clockwise from bottom left): Frederick Woodall, Dizari Hunter, Kenneth Winters, Kamani Johns, and Day'Ami Moyet.
Students at Stetser Elementary School plant raspberry bushes as they work to repair a garden (clockwise from bottom left): Frederick Woodall, Dizari Hunter, Kenneth Winters, Kamani Johns, and Day'Ami Moyet. (KATHY BOCCELLA / Staff)
Posted: June 14, 2014

For three years, the small but thriving vegetable plot outside Chester's Stetser Elementary School taught schoolchildren the joy of gardening and the necessity of eating healthy foods such as cabbage, sweet potatoes, carrots, and squash, and even caught the attention of nutrition-crusading Michelle Obama.

But in recent weeks, a cruel act of vandalism has given fifth graders at the Delaware County school some new lessons: in perseverance and the art of rebuilding.

"We did hard work, and now we've got to do it all over," said 11-year-old Kamani Johns, one of several Stetser fifth graders who lined up in the garden, next to the school playground, on a gloomy and brooding Wednesday morning to spread topsoil around two new raspberry bushes that replace some of the greenery yanked out by vandals.

"See this?" she said, picking up a piece of a broken bed trashed by the intruders, who yanked out 10 large blueberry bushes on May 2, a Friday night. "This is what I'm talking about."

But what began as a sad tale of senseless destruction has inspired an uplifting second act. Community residents and students from Swarthmore College have worked with Stetser pupils and their teachers not only to repair the damaged section, but to make it better, with sturdier raised beds, new plants, and a new fence to provide a necessary buffer.

Stetser principal Janet Baldwin said the children and their supporters were also raising money for a touching feature: a bench that will be dedicated as a memorial to their former classmate Amajhay Ferguson, a 9-year-old who was one of three children killed in a July 2013 house fire.

The Swarthmore students "stepped right up to the plate," said Baldwin, admiring the work that had been done to salvage and rebuild the damaged area of the rain garden, which had been planted to prevent soil erosion from a once-bare area near the playground. That newer section, which also included pollinating plants to increase the butterfly population, had been funded with a $2,800 grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

The May vandalism marred what had been a remarkable success story dating to the 2010-11 school year, when - partly inspired by Michelle Obama's initiatives to encourage better nutrition for young people - Stetser students started a small vegetable garden and planned a healthy menu for a school event honoring African American history.

In February 2011, a couple of the students wrote to Obama to tell her about their project - and were thrilled when she responded with an invitation to help her plant the White House's vegetable garden in March 2012. A few months later, Obama's staff overnighted the White House harvest of onions, radishes, and lettuce.

By then, the initial garden at Stetser was flourishing, producing broccoli, yellow squash, zucchini, carrots, beets, and string beans. The growing horticulture site, including the newer rain garden, is the focal point of the Stetser Eco-School Summer Academy.

The culprits who destroyed the beds and ripped out the bushes have not been identified, although Baldwin said a neighbor did spot several youths running away from the site the night of the incident. "It was kind of a big shock," Baldwin said. "We were really sad, because the kids have worked so hard to construct the raised beds and put in landscape fabric and mix all the soil."

Frederick Woodall, 11, one of the fifth graders rebuilding the garden as the school year winds down, could not agree more. "It's not right," he said. "That's why we put the fence up, so when we were playing we don't run into the plants."

On Wednesday, Woodall and the other children were working as a team, mixing soil and digging deep holes where the new bushes were to go. Occasionally, when their digging became too frenetic and the rich dirt started flying, Baldwin would tell them, "Soil is gold!"

The night before, some of the children working in the garden had helped stage a talent show where $100 was raised for a bench and a small plaque that will commemorate Amajhay, who had helped to cultivate the vegetable garden before she died.

As they worked, the students and their teacher talked of their plans to expand again in the fall with kale, collard greens, and spinach and of doing more to educate parents (the ones "making food decisions," Baldwin noted) about nutrition. And they kept a wary eye on Mother Nature's vandal - a groundhog that scurried across the yard.

But they also stood back to admire what they've done in the last five weeks. "It looks great," said Kamani Johns. "Better than what it looked like."



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