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Green Means Self Esteem

KidsPeace Berks County Campus is performing small miracles daily in its efforts to go green and teach recycling and conservation of the earth’s resources to the children who attend school there. The Advances Program in the William Sarig building at 8th and Hay provides three different levels of partial hospitalization and special education to children in grades 1-12 who have been placed there to help them overcome emotional, behaviorial, or other mental health issues.

Fred Indenbaum, a therapist at the school, has spearheaded amazing awareness and activism among the children and faculty alike that has snowballed into a model program that Fred hopes will achieve national recognition. “The children have been working so hard on our projects, from planting our first garden nearly two years ago to actively participating in our new vericomposting effort,” Fred says.

A Bit of History
Fred is a big believer in the therapeutic benefits of gardening, and he knew that the children at KidsPeace Advances would reap far more than the fruits and vegetables they grew. Fred contacted numerous businesses, agencies, organizations and individuals to raise funds to build and plant the first garden nearly two years ago. Lowe’s of Reading donated supplies and building materials, and many of Lowe’s employees volunteered to help build the 13 original raised garden beds, one for each classroom. Rodale donated advice and a number of books on gardening, and a special benefactress, Ms. Annie Nolf, helped tremendously with funds to purchase seeds, plants and other sundry articles the children needed to have for a great garden.

The yield was enormous, providing fresh vegetables all summer and fall. The flowers they grew decorated the school and were delivered to seniors in nursing homes in Berks County. During the fall and winter of 2008/09, the children worked very hard building a storage shed for their tools, picnic tables and benches, new beds for roses and spring flowers and an apartment style birdhouse that sits high on a pole overlooking the main garden.

But Fred wasn’t finished by a long shot. He also introduced the idea of vericomposting to the school, and the children were all very excited. Four 8’ by 4’ bins were built, and Fred ordered a total of 120 pounds of red worms to occupy the bins and eat and digest the school’s food and paper waste. Fred contacted a local business, SOMAT, and asked for assistance with the project. SOMAT came through enthusiastically, donating a brand new $30,000 pulper and a 6-month supply of corn-based plates, trays, cups and cutlery to be used in the school cafeteria. Indeed, the campus was becoming greener by the day.

“We have three waste streams,” Fred explains, “trash, recycling, and vericomposting.” The trays that serve as plates for lunch are manufactured from corn stalks; material that used to be discarded after the corn was harvested. “Although the corn-based products are more expensive,” says Fred, “we are only paying for them once. With Styrofoam and plastic, we paid to purchase them and then again to dispose of them.” The program saves the campus $2,700 yearly.  He tells the students that by acting responsibly now, they will be making life better for themselves and their children in the future. He is teaching them that they as individuals can make a difference in the world by their actions and choices.

The worms have started digesting the school’s waste, creating rich compost to add to the soil to produce an even greater yield in this year’s garden. The pulper pulverizes food, the trays and cutlery, paper and cardboard, that had heretofore gone into the regular daily campus trash. According to staff member Mike Diana, who operates the pulper daily, trash has been reduced from 20 large bags a day to only six. Each classroom has several bins into which students sort their trash neatly and efficiently, ensuring that recyclables are separate from regular trash, and the trash to be turned to pulp is carefully set aside. “It doesn’t take any more time,” Fred says, “particularly now that it has become second nature to the students and staff.”

The first composting bin is a fascinating ecosystem with more than 30,000 worms and 220 pounds of pulped waste. It will take approximately three months for that amount of waste to be converted to compost, but the students must be diligent about turning the material in the bed to aerate the contents and eliminate odors. The worms reproduce and live about three years in the bins, becoming more active as the weather warms. More worms are on order so that the other three bins can be put into service soon.

Harvesting Self Esteem
The most exciting part of the whole project is the dedication and teamwork of the students and the impact this program is having on their self-esteem. The older teens in class #14 are the real leaders of the project, according to Fred, and he is so proud of how hard they work on a daily basis to move the efforts forward. They also made presentations to visitors from local agencies, the school board, donors, SOMAT officials and KidsPeace executives on the day the vericomposting project was officially introduced. Each of them is an expert on the program and can explain any aspect of the recycling, pulping or worms to visitors. Fred calls this class the “engine” of the project and delights in the leadership these students demonstrate in encouraging and teaching the younger classes how to recycle.  All students participate in the physical labor required to get the vericomposting program off the ground.  Students have also built a garden shed, 13 garden beds, the worm bins, 2 picnic benches, and a purple martin bird condo.

Gabrielle says, “I really enjoy explaining the project to other classes. We work as a group to make presentations to visitors, and it is an honor to be part of this classroom to work with every one of these guys.”

Nate is delighted that what they are doing in the class is benefiting not only the school but the community. “I definitely will keep on doing this, and I may start programs in other schools if I make enough money. I am really learning a lot.”

Justina is very proud of her work. “I think it is pretty cool because it actually brings us together too. I wasn’t really social before, but I am getting there I guess. Now I have my parents recycling at home too.”

In a very soft voice, Kimberly says, “I think this school is the best because it helps people who are sad, and the project helps a lot.”

Anna, who is 14, says “It is important because my baby will learn how to recycle, and he will do it for the rest of his life.”

“I’m kind of new here,” Austin explains, “and this project helps bring everyone together for a purpose.”

According to Josh, “This program is a place where people can go in order to make progress in their lives and work toward a positive future.”

Fred emphasizes that the purpose of the school and the green project are not to change the kids there but to help them grow, much like trees grow and branch out and become strong and self-reliant. “These children all have gifts, and they are all unique. We give them the opportunity to use the skills they already have and grow as individuals in the process. The entire recycling project and the garden are very therapeutic. Working together and seeing such good results raise the kids’ self-esteem and help them grow.”

You are Invited, Mr. President
Fred and the kids from the KidsPeace Advances School have decided to tell President Obama about their project because it is unique and it demonstrates one of his campaign initiatives, making schools green. All of the students in the school are working on letters to the President, and classroom 14 will select the most compelling paragraphs from all of the letters and compile one letter that reflects the school’s point of view. “We will tell him about our project and the impact it has on us and the community.  We want him to see for himself how a school can go green,” Fred explains. The students are excited and very hopeful that they will receive an answer. Gabrielle sums up the feeling of the entire class. “I have high hopes that we will hear back from President Obama and that he might come to visit our school.”

Berks Campus students turn pulverized paper and food waste in vericomposting bin to aerate and help worms break the waste down into rich soil.


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