February 2015 RichmondMom with a Mission: Ellen Shepard

As moms, we’ve all felt the struggle…how do we get our kids excited to eat—and maybe even enjoy—healthy, naturally-grown foods?  The First Lady has visibly placed that goal amongst her top priorities, and so has February’s RichmondMom with a Mission!

Meet Ellen Shepard, Co-Chair of The Dandelion–Linwood Holton Elementary School’s Outdoor Classroom.

Little House (1)[photo courtesy of Little House Green Grocery]

RichmondMom Cheryl
How would you describe what is you do when it comes to teaching kids about growing and eating healthy food here in RVA–and beyond?

Dandelion Co-Chair, Ellen Shepard 
We have tried to get students from age four to eleven outside to learn about good soil, planting seeds, taking care of their plants, harvesting, and eating. We often ask students which fruits and vegetables they like to eat. From their list, we plant vegetables appropriate to the season with a mix of vegetables with the most votes –  along with one or two the students may not have tried – or even heard of. We try to plant a mix of leafy and root vegetables so students can see and taste a variety of vegetables. We have been fortunate to partner with Bon Secours, Chefs to Schools, Edible Education, and parent chefs who help prepare the food students grow.

What was the catalyst that made you decide YOU personally needed to take action?

I wanted my boys outside more. Linwood Holton Elementary School is in the City of Richmond but sits on quite a bit of land. We saw that space as a real opportunity to build an outdoor classroom. We want the outdoor classroom to be a place for kids to explore, investigate, and have some fun.

Please tell us a bit about how you got started…

The school had raised garden beds that weren’t being used and parent Susanna Raffenot said we should do something about that. That was six years ago. We have been working to get kids outside ever since. It is very important not to have just a parent project. This needs to be a teacher, parent, and community supported project with strong support from the principal. We spent a year developing plans and attending neighborhood association meetings. You will have a much stronger project if you have broad support. You will need that support to sustain your project after the initial excitement of construction. Have a co-chair. Susanna Raffenot has done the budgeting & fundraising, teacher toolkits, student guidebooks, human sundial, informational signs, cookbook, newsletter articles, and more. It is much more fun and sustainable if you share the work. Learn from others! We probably visited ten well established school gardens to see how it could be done.

What is the goal of your work with The Dandelion?

Our goal is to provide students with an enduring foundation and beautiful environment in order to enrich curriculum, promote healthy food choices, develop social skills, and strengthen community ties.

What do you feel has been accomplished so far?

I hope students have a greater appreciation of the natural world and their connection to it. Students’ enthusiasm, passion, and curiosity are wonderful to see. I hope students will keep that with them.

Fellow Co-Chair, Susanna Raffenot 
I think it’s great how students cycle through the whole garden ecosystem from VPI to 5th grade. Early grades focus on planting, eating and getting the basics. Older grades do compost, tree planting and pollination or a butterfly garden to learn of the importance to the whole system and how it works together.

What makes you proudest personally about your affiliation with the group(s)?

Fellow Co-Chair, Susanna Raffenot 
The 200+ tree/shrub planting that has transformed what the grounds [at Linwood Holton Elementary] look like. They provide definition – all which you can really see now that they are filling out.

Dandelion Co-Chair, Ellen Shepard
The invitation to visit the White House gardens is something I will never forget.
I have to look at pictures to believe it really happened. Five fifth grade students were invited to go and my son was in fifth grade so we were able to have that experience together.
The First Lady did such an amazing job of making the students feel comfortable that my son felt confident enough to ask her for an interview for the school newspaper.

What’s next on-deck?

We are working hard to document what we have done with classes so it is easier for teacher and parent volunteers to incorporate into classroom learning.

How can others get involved?

Whether it is health and wellness interest, or a desire to protect the environment, there are many, many ways to get involved. If you are interested in starting a garden at your child’s school, talk to the principal and your child’s teacher. Start small. You will be responsible for maintaining what you start.

How does your family feel about what you are doing?

“Gardens are good and kids can eat the food. If no one works on the garden, the kids can’t eat the food from the garden.” —Will Shepard

Ellen, thank you so much for your commitment to such an important cause…and for being a RichmondMom with a mission!