The lure of a sunny landscape, birdsong, and crafts with friends can be a welcome reprieve from a classroom. At Sierra School of San Diego in San Carlos, students in first grade up to age 22 can learn about bees, how to grow food, and later develop recipes from a growing area they share with San Carlos Community Garden. They can also practice social skills, teamwork, and communication—skills that often don’t come naturally. These youth are learning with autism spectrum disorders, emotional or intellectual disabilities, and other health issues, which can be challenging. However, outside, among the flowers and trees, as they focus on watering, weeding, and harvesting, they can grow in ways that help prepare them for jobs in the community.

Butterflies, as well as humans, are attracted to San Carlos Community Garden.

Erin Schwier, head of occupational therapy at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences, has been helping Sierra School students for 16 years. She says the skillsets learned in the garden might be “as simple as following directions, following a schedule, maintaining a sense of responsibility, [and] giving them a sense of independence,” knowing they can do some aspects of life by themselves. 

Recently, the students harvested potatoes, plucked fresh rosemary, and made rosemary fries. Matt Beltran, an occupational therapist (OT) at the school, says youth “really enjoy” cooking together and it helps them learn “executive function skills, as well as fine and gross motor skills.” 

Some students have gone on to land work at Panera Bread, Parkway Bowl, and TERi Ranch. Jessica Leiser, another of the school’s OTs, who cheerfully encourages her charges to explain the garden to newcomers and show off their art, says some individuals have maintained these working positions for up to 8 years. 

Students Lydia and Diego water plants as part of a gardening program at Sierra School of San Diego.
Students, staff, and others helping in the gardening program at Sierra School of San Diego.

This joint-use project with the public community garden was established in 2012 with a grant from the San Diego Health and Human Services Agency. Neighbors who garden there help the school by occasionally watering and providing compost for the students’ plots. Collaboration is key to the school’s success. Both St. Augustine and Grossmont College have provided interns. Other partners include the County of San Diego, San Carlos Church, and many more.

Neighbors create compost at San Carlos Community Garden and share it with students at the adjacent school.

A state WorkAbility grant funds the students’ lessons in transitioning from the academic world to the workforce. That program aims to inspire young people into continued learning, thereby enhancing their quality of life. Pupils must create a resume and undergo an interview in order to get placed in jobs. 

Neighbors helping neighbors is an underlying theme of the entire garden area, with attractions that include a small amphitheater and workshops. One new community gardener, Stella Uruchurtu, says she recently downsized from a big home to a townhouse that “just has a small patio.” Gardening with other people has been “wonderful,” she says, not only from a social aspect but also the way it increases wellness. “You eat better,” she says. Uruchurtu enjoys her quiet times there too. “It’s very peaceful.”

For more information on San Carlos Community Garden, click here.

Students and neighbors enjoy socializing at events in the amphitheater at San Carlos Community Garden.

San Carlos Community Garden’s rainwater collection system.
Sierra School students recycled plastic bottles and painted them to decorate their garden fence.
Student Diego holds a cauliflower grown in the garden at Sierra School of San Diego. Photo courtesy of the school.
Students make crafts from their garden at Sierra School of San Diego.
Student Diego holds a cauliflower grown in the garden at Sierra School of San Diego. Photo courtesy of the school.
Students make crafts from their garden at Sierra School of San Diego.
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