8th Grade Community Service Week

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Synergy introduced something new this fall: the eighth grade class had a week of community service work after their week at Farm School. This was the first year the eighth grade has gone to Farm School as a group, without the rest of the middle school. At Farm School they engaged in team-building and rites of passage activities, including testing their skills and challenging themselves on a high ropes course.

For the community service week, the eighth grade worked with the Garden Project, a nonprofit organization started by Cathrine Sneed (Middle School math teacher Sogolon Best’s mother and Azana’s grandmother) that trains and employs at-risk youth, immigrants, and former county jail inmates; it also provides food to needy and elderly San Franciscans. (Synergy families will be working at The Garden Project again during the Community Service event this Saturday, November 14th).

Since all the middle school teachers were at Farm School with the fifth and sixth grades, after-school coordinator Ariel Leighton, outdoor education facilitator Jillian Van Ness, and John Austin, Director of Education at The Garden Project and Synergy’s Japanese teacher, supervised the students.  Cathrine Sneed provided food each day (“I’ve found that food is very important,” she said) so the students started each work day with a hearty breakfast and topped it off with a hot lunch.

For the first three days of the week, the group worked at Crystal Springs Watershed, south of San Francisco, on a remote ridge with stunning views of forests and surrounding hillsides. On Thursday and Friday, they worked at Lake Merced. They raked leaves, cleared brush, tested water levels, planted ground cover, and removed trash.

On Thursday, as the eighth graders munched fruit and bagels, Cathrine introduced several young people who participate in the Garden Project’s Earth Stewards program. The young people, all college students who have been with the program since high school, were there to help with the day’s work. “The Earth Stewards learn skills and they are paid for their work,” Cathrine said. “Of course they buy some of the ‘I-things’ teens always want, but they also help their families pay the rent and buy food.”

Each of the Earth Stewards introduced him or herself and talked a little about the program. Sylvia, who attends City College, gave a shout out for Cathrine. “She has a really big heart,” she said. “There are so many other things she could be doing, but instead she’s out here working with all of us.”

After breakfast, the eighth graders grabbed brooms and shovels and got to work. Some kids swept debris off the pavement, others dug holes, others planted small strawberry plants for ground cover. Nico, Alec, and Roma worked together digging holes for the strawberry plants, and clearly enjoyed the challenge. “I like using a shovel,” Roma said. They all agreed that they preferred digging holes to clearing brush, which is what they’d done at Crystal Springs. Some of the kids were more skilled with tools than others, but they all worked diligently—when they weren’t breaking up into happyk knots to jostle and make each other laugh. 

Cathrine and the other adults kept the kids on track, offering encouragement and advice. “These last two week have been really valuable for the eighth graders,” Jillian said, as she watched the eighth graders work. “The high ropes course at Farm School pushed the kids; it showed them where they are strong and not so strong, Now they are getting to bring those strengths and skills here to help in their own community. It’s good preparation for the eighth grade trip to Costa Rica, where they will be doing a service learning project.”

A number of passersby stopped to thank the eighth graders for their hard work. “Sometimes kids will ask, ‘What difference does our work make?’” Jillian said.  “When people stop to say thank you, the kids realize that people use the space and it’s been pretty neglected. It helps them see that they’re making a difference in their community, and that’s important.”

by Connie Matthiessen, photos by John Austin

Learn more about The Garden Project.



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