For the last eight years, the City of San Marcos Senior Volunteers and the Woodland Park Middle School’s division for Special Needs Children have worked together to plant, weed, and care for the San Marcos Intergenerational Garden.
Until 2011, the two groups watched each other play through the wire fences separating the school from the garden, but now, they spend the school year in the garden together. It is a place where marvelous things happen as the wisdom of age and the energy of youth are combined.
Terry Wolfe, the Program Coordinator of the Senior Volunteers, works with Woodland Park Middle School teachers to outline goals for the gardening experience. They develop lesson plans to help special needs children learn about what they eat and to encourage them to explore new experiences with food.
Each student has an aide, many of whom smell, touch, taste, and explore along with the children.
Terry’s demonstrations always begin with the inspection of a live plant or vegetable. On my visit, each student was asked to touch and feel the texture of cilantro; smell the fragrance; and, when appropriate, taste the leaves to discover differences in sweet, sour, or bland flavors. Terry used freshly picked orange slices for taste comparison.
I watched as John Connors, a long-time, avid gardener and volunteer, coaxed a reluctant student to try an orange.
“The garden is my physical exercise, my social circle, my playground, and my reward of community service,” he told me later.
After their lesson, the group of students, aides, and volunteers walked towards the garden to start planting. The seniors demonstrated how deep and how far apart to plant the seeds, explaining what kind of care and the amount of water needed to grow.
They examined the progress of their sugar snap peas, planted a few weeks earlier and only a few inches tall. “Your plants could grow that high,” Terry pointed to a nearby garden where snap peas had already reached the height of the fence.
Each student planted their two allocated seeds of Cilantro. During this exercise, the seniors patiently explained the importance of sun and rain, watching carefully for smiles of recognition to break through. Some students grasped the concepts, others did not, but all beamed at being included.
When the plants are ready to be harvested, the group will share salad meals made from what they’ve grown.
"I cannot praise the seniors enough for their patience and their gardening expertise,” said teacher, Jim Tremayne. “And while the students aren't all capable of commenting on their enthusiasm, it shows in more subtle ways. They respond without hesitation to any opportunity to go to ‘their’ garden."
Planting completed, some of the students walked towards the horses curiously poking their heads over the fence.
“The horses come to the fence the minute they hear the children,” Pat Tirshfield, another senior volunteer, laughed. "It's beautiful to see the interaction between the students, the garden, and we seniors.”
The intergenerational garden has become a place where differences in age and ability are celebrated and everyone comes together with love and respect. It is a place where not only plants thrive, but people do too.