Combining education with creative arts through the REACH Garden.
By Penélope Guevara
The REACH garden provides an excellent opportunity for active learning, while at the same time providing organic food to nourish our students and their families. Here the children learn about taking care of the environment, sustainable gardening, and all the benefits of interacting with nature and outdoor activities.
Directly linked to the Health and Nutrition program, the REACH garden has become a crucial piece in our mission of providing education, nutrition and health to our students and families.
The idea of integrating a green area where our team could grow organic fruit and vegetables was born as an emergency response due to COVID-19. Considering the garden program was not part of the initial plan, the outcome has been a welcome surprise.
During the 2020 lockdowns and red zones, the REACH team faced the desperate situation of indefinitely stopping our kitchen operations, depriving our students of a regular hearty meal. Forced to close our doors, the nutritional strategy went from providing daily school meals, to become entirely focused on helping families survive through the most challenging times by providing regular emergency food relief packs.
A REACH family receiving food relief during lockdowns.
The food support packages included rice, canned fish, oil, noodles, eggs and other nutritious groceries. To complement the nutritional support, our kitchen team decided to facilitate the development of a vegetable garden. To keep our hardworking kitchen team employed and busy, additional land at the back of the school was cleared, vegetable beds were created, soil, mulch and compost was spread, and seeds were planted. As a result, by May of 2020, the team distributed the first harvested morning glory to the neediest families, resulting in the start of the REACH Garden program.
Two years on, the garden now grows a variety of local vegetables depending on the season and weather. Now, the Health and Nutrition team has developed comprehensive program, maximising the benefits of our 21 garden beds. Quoting Sreymom, REACH cook and gardener:
"It is such a great success to see the garden's transformation from the empty land to now being filled with fresh and different kinds of vegetables. I am so happy that we will be able to share our growing vegetables with our families and include this program for our students in the future. Growing vegetables is my passion, and I love working in the garden."
Sreymom proudly showing Chinese spinach.
Our nutritional response
At the start of each semester, the team dedicates the first week of school measuring each student's weight, height and BMI. Depending on their results, the garden's harvests are handed out to the students with the lowest scores, aiming to improve their physical development through balanced nutrition.
Every month the garden produces anywhere from 8 kg to 50kg of vegetables which the team distributes to the students on a rotational basis through the different classroom levels within REACH, starting with Kindergarten, followed by Yellow, Green, Blue and Pink Room. Although our crops are limited, we want to give as much help as possible, and by combining this strategy with daily nutritious meals and multivitamins, we can see the difference in the growth, mood and school performance of our students.
Every 6 months, as a new semester commences, BMIs are taken again, and our list of children receiving garden provisions is updated. By implementing this strategy, we are not only able to give extra sustenance to those who need it most but are also able to teach our kids a valuable lesson about sharing, only taking what they need and looking out for their friends.
Our kindergarteners with the first batch of morning glory!
Our educational response
Teaching the students to grow their own food gives them a new perspective on wanting to improve their diet, willing to eat more fruit and vegetables. In addition to this, ecological awareness goes hand in hand with the children's development of love for nature and interest in caring for their environment.
Turning our garden into an educational facility was always a large future goal of our Garden program.
Thankfully with the support of several volunteers, in June this year the REACH team were able to implement the program, while also taking our REACH Role Models program one step further. As part of our Role Models educational journey, the students from Pink Room are asked to volunteer for 85 minutes over two days in either the REACH Repair Shop or the garden.
Each semester, half of the students from the Role Models Club learn about one of the two programs through a mix of theoretical and practical lessons. The following semester, the students will swap programs so the entire class can have exposure to both vocational facilities.
With an enormous amount of support and guidance from international volunteer Annie, working hand in hand with our local Youth Leader Seangheng this semester, our team has successfully developed the Role Model Club 6-month garden curriculum. We are still in the early stages of running the program and developing best practices, together with dealing with the outdoor elements of getting rained out, or escaping the 35+ degree heat. Happily we can report that to date, the curriculum has been a complete success.
Over the last 5 months, the students who have been volunteering in the garden have learned about seeds, soil, organic compost, mulching, organic fertiliser, sustainable and ethical gardening practices, and various fruit and vegetables.
Annie, our Interational volunteer teaching in Siem Reap about seeds to the Role Models.
The REACH Role Model students have 4 garden beds to experiment with growing seeds while admiring the impressive changes new life can bring. With the help of videos, informative materials and fun activities, the Role Models have grown a range of vegetables including morning glory, long beans and okra. With fun activities like 'Farm to Table,' our young students have used their five senses to discover a new way of appreciating food and nature.
In addition, the children are able to put their artistic creativity into practice by creating scarecrows, pots for their plants, and signs to show their harvests.
We are astounded by the incredible transformation this area at REACH has become.
It went from being an empty plot of land to providing nutritional relief during emergency times, followed by becoming a place where the kids can now learn and enjoy. Through this program, we want to instil knowledge on how to grow their own food so that they can pass on those skills in their villages.
The Role Models students after painting garden signs.
As part of the Role Model curriculum, and a reward for their volunteer hours, the students are able to go on educational excursions to have exposure to the outside world. In line with their garden class, the students recently visited the Angkor Botanical Garden, where they learned about medicinal plants, spices, flowers and Cambodian flora.
Quoting our REACH Role Model Leader Seangheng on the importance of teaching the students about gardens and nature:
“Having a garden at REACH has taught me the close relationship between the art of life and education. It's impressive how knowledge of making organic compost or mixing soil can provide lifetime skills to our students. Through this knowledge, the students can support and teach their families.”
The program development continues...
As the Role Models garden lesson plan is now up and running, our next goal is to further develop this curriculum for our Kindergarteners and Green Room students.
We believe that giving ecological exposure to children at an early age will help them to develop lifelong skills, while also imparting important lessons about health and nutrition as they grow and develop into tomorrow's leaders.
Do you want to share your skills, knowledge and time?
The REACH Garden program is the perfect example of how kind-hearted individuals can support our team in developing educational projects. Click here to learn more about our Volunteers Program and share our goal of breaking the cycle of poverty.