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Planting the Seeds of Organic Urban Farming at H.B.

Wilson School in Camden

Caption: H.B. Wilson Elementary School Principal Katherine Avant (center) surrounded by 5th grade honors students prepping the school‟s new organic garden.

Caption: Susquehanna Bank President Joseph Lizza (in light blue shirt) turns the soil for H.B. Wilson Elementary School‟s organic garden

CAMDEN, NEW JERSEY … The threat of thunderstorms didn‟t scare Susquehanna Bank and Adventure Aquarium volunteers away from their mission of prepping an organic garden at the H.B. Wilson School at 8th & Woodland, Friday, May 14. More than a dozen volunteers worked hand and hand with Joan Trojan‟s 5th grade honors class, pulling weeds, turning soil, assembling garden equipment and spreading mulch – getting the ground ready for planting. The urban farming project sprouted from an Adventure Aquarium SEA Star Scholarship grant. “Eating the fruits of their labor is going to be the big „ah hah‟ moment for these kids.” Adventure Aquarium‟s Kim Walker says she gets goose bumps when she thinks about the first time the kids eat something they grew.” She‟s was thrilled to spend the day outdoors working with the H.B. Wilson students and six other volunteers from the Aquarium‟s staff on a project that bubbled up from the desires of the kids in the community. “I think one of coolest things about this program is that the concept for the garden project came directly from the students,” said Walker, who established Adventure Aquarium‟s Camden SEA Star Scholarship program in 2008. “The idea behind the Camden SEA Star Scholarship is to challenge and inspire students through the exploration of science and nature. Not only did the students and teachers at H.B. Wilson develop the concept for the garden, they are out here putting in the work and getting their hands dirty to help make that dream a reality.” H.B. Wilson Elementary School is the second Camden school to receive a SEA Star Scholarship. The word “SEA” stands for Student Environmental Advocates. The school – which only opened its doors in September of 2009 – used the $4,000 grant to purchase equipment, including a compost mixer and rain collector barrel, and organic vegetable seeds from Whole Foods. In addition, every single student at H.B. Wilson will be treated to a visit to the Aquarium on June 22nd. “The wonderful people who grew and donated all the organic plants for our organic garden are Amanda McCutcheon and Rob Ferber from Monroeville in Salem County.” Joan Trojan spoke glowingly of the owners of The Philly Chile Company. “They wanted to do something to help us, and they certainly did.”

Fourteen students in Trojan‟s class and their families have committed to tend their family plot with the help of the Woodland Youth Group from the Woodland Community Development Corporation (WCDC) throughout the summer. Each family will be the ones eating the fruits of their labor at harvest time. Fifth grader Ruben Wilmer, who wants to be a chef some day, schooled his classmates in the art of gardening. He had his first urban vegetable garden last year on the side of his family‟s home in neighborhood near the school. What he learned cleaning out the lot for his garden was useful as he offered instruction on turning the soil and getting rid of weeds. “I was proud that we got vegetables from our garden last year because we started late. The lot had a lot of rocks that had to be removed.” Before Friday‟s ground prep, representatives from Rutgers Camden spent the day with the students teaching them about produce, what grows well in this region and why. Students learned how to take soil samples and tested their garden‟s soil to determine if it lacked the necessary nutrients for a good yield. According to Principal Kathleen Avant, the soil got a good grade. The next step in the project is to plant the cucumbers, zucchini, squash, peppers, tomatoes, swiss chard, collard greens – maybe even watermelon, carrots and potatoes in a plot that is roughly 65 x 15 feet nestled in the school‟s courtyard. This urban garden is more than a lesson about healthy eating and understanding where food comes from, it has global and technology driven components as well, says Charles Frazier, H.B. Wilson‟s Technology Coordinator. “Our students are partnering with a school in Camden, England and will videoconference the students at the sister school to report progress. They‟ll also blog about the garden and develop a website that will feature a pictorial diary and show off the final products.” H.B. Wilson Principal Avant joined the students wearing her business suit and sneakers – not the slightest bit afraid to get her hands or her clothes dirty. “When we received the grant, we were recognized by the Camden Board of Education. I brought in parents and students. We took over the Board of Ed meeting that night.” Joseph Lizza, president of the Delaware Valley Division of Susquehanna Bank, rolled up his sleeves along with more than a half dozen Susquehanna employees from their Camden waterfront headquarters. Lizza and his staff assembled two wheelbarrows and a compost mixer that will be used to compost food from the school cafeteria. “We‟ve been here in Camden for 2 ½ years and we do projects like this to build relationships with the members of the community and to be useful to the people who live here.” The bank volunteers sit on several boards and committees of housing-related organizations, but this project is different. Susquehanna Community Reinvestment Act Mortgage Loan Officer Cheryl Suess says in Camden, they‟ve worked with Habitat for Humanity, the St. Joseph‟s Carpentry Society, Heart of Camden, and Camden Lutheran Housing, to name a few. “This is unique because it gets folks out who don‟t normally get out of the office to meet the people in the community. And we get to establish relationships with the schools and kids.” “This has been one of the best programs that I‟ve worked on in Camden.” Rev. Floyd White, president of the WCDC and pastor at Woodland Avenue Presbyterian Church – which is across the street from the school. WCDC graded the lot – leveling it and cleaning up debris to prepare it for Friday‟s work. They also contributed the rototiller and some of the manpower for Friday. Young people from his youth program will assist the families to make sure the gardens are watered, weeded and stay productive. “As a member of the Camden core planning group working to fight childhood obesity, I see so many benefits to this program. It‟s educational and addresses critical issues like the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables available in this community.” Both Rev. White and Charles Frazier hope that the garden will give the people in the surrounding community a sense of ownership and spawn partnerships. “There are cameras and fences to protect the garden,” says Frazier. “We can‟t always prevent people from taking food from the garden. I can‟t fault someone for wanting to feed themselves. What we hope is that they‟ll respect the effort put forth, and join us to partner, profit and be fruitful.”

Greg Charbeneau, Adventure Aquarium‟s Executive Director, is also excited about the long-term impact on the students. “Teaching young and impressionable children about the importance of creating their own garden and about eating healthy, right here in within the City of Camden, is extremely important, as there are very limited opportunities within the immediate area. This program is not just making use of the most recent fad or the latest technology, it is teaching students valuable skills that will last a lifetime.”