Petting goats. Watering flowers. Playing with mud.
At their garden ministry in Brentwood, the Sisters of St. Joseph let kids be kids again.
“The program teaches young children how to play outside again,” said Mallory McClafferty, one of four SJC Long Island students who volunteered with the garden ministry this summer. “With the advancements in technology and the revolution of indoor play, many children and parents have forgotten how to interact with the beauty of nature.”
St. Joseph’s alumna Heather Ganz ’06 manages the garden ministry, which helps children develop an appreciation for nature and a deeper understanding of animals. As someone who received her bachelor’s degree in child study, teaching children through these programs has been a rewarding experience for Ms. Ganz.
“I hope the children leave this program with a nurtured sense of wonder, an ability to explore and observe with all of their senses, and a love for the natural world that will make them responsible citizens of the planet,” she said.
The garden ministry has two summer youth programs. Children aged 1 to 4 attend a program called My Grown-Up and Me in the Big Outdoors, while kids aged 5 through 12 participate in the Hands-On Earth Playgroup.
I hope the children leave this program with a nurtured sense of wonder, an ability to explore and observe with all of their senses, and a love for the natural world that will make them responsible citizens of the planet.” –Heather Ganz ’06
Regardless of their age, the children seem drawn to the vegetable and flower gardens, taking it upon themselves to water the flowers, while subconsciously learning to care for the planet. The tots and pre-teens seem equally fascinated by the animals at the garden ministry, which include two goats, Elsa and Josefina; three rabbits, Molly, Polly and Peter; and some 50 chickens.
“These children come from a variety of different backgrounds, some of them barely speak English, and they can all play together with no issues,” said SJC senior Valarie Lanzarone, a student volunteer.
Another SJC volunteer, senior Giselle Ostorga, added “the most important thing the kids learned is to share and work together to accomplish a goal.”
The children aren’t the only ones learning from their time at the garden ministry.
“The lessons that the children take from this are quite similar to the lessons that we as volunteers take from this – they don’t need materialistic things to make them happy,” Ms. Lanzarone said. “They can stop and notice all of the natural things around them and be more creative.”
Seeing the children roam freely and explore nature is an important part of the program, said volunteer Lacey Dillworth, a junior at SJC.
“It was fascinating to see the children interpret and make up various ways of playing with the materials set up for them every day,” she said. “The volunteers would always say to each other how impressed we were by what the children came up with.”
Ms. Ganz, 32, who knew she would need helping hands at the garden ministry, had reached out to SJC Child Study Chair S. Mary Ann Cashin, C.S.J., to ask for volunteers.
“I thought it would be beneficial for the students to work with children in a natural setting,” she said. “I knew SJC students would be a huge help to me, as well as the children. The SJC volunteers have contributed so much to the children’s programs.”
S. Mary Ann was thrilled to have so many students interested in this volunteer opportunity.
“I knew the experience of the garden ministry would be a unique opportunity for the volunteers, and that was confirmed each week, as I watched them enter the experience with enthusiasm, creativity and sensitivity,” she said. “They realize the vital part they can play in encouraging children to feel at home in the natural world and enjoy the discoveries they make.”
The garden itself has a long history, dating back to 1989.
“My purpose was to use a small portion of our motherhouse grounds to model the possibility of growing food that was not laced with chemicals that were harmful to human beings, especially children,” S. Mary Lou Buser said.
Nearly 30 years later, S. Mary Lou still enjoys tending to the completely organic garden. “One of the joys I experience at the garden is watching as children of all ages learn to have fun with earthy things and grow ever more inquisitive about them,” she said.