Snapshot: Austin Discovery School’s Garden Work Day

Teaching kids empathy, one plant at a time

The grounds surrounding Austin Discovery School teem with plant and animal life. Fig, peach, pomegranate, and other fruit trees frame thousands of square feet of garden beds sprouting produce ranging from carrots to radishes, parsley, eggplants, tomatoes, and watermelons. Chickens wander through a spacious enclosure next to the framework of a new greenhouse, queen butterflies lay eggs among ample milkweed flowers in abundance, bees buzz busily between their houses and adjacent flora. It's a veritable Eden, all thanks to efforts of kindergarten through eighth grade students over the course of a couple of years.

"There wasn't any life when we started about two years ago," says Tim Ornes. Along with fellow teacher Thora Gray, Ornes runs the school's mandatory EcoWellness program. He notes that the whole area was once covered in thick clay. "It's amazing the amount of growth that's taken place."

That's in large part due to work done during ADS's biannual Garden Work Day, a fall and spring volunteer effort fulfilled primarily by students' families, which "Snapshot" documented for several hours this past Sunday at the ADS campus in East Austin.

Tending the annual garden beds is a core project: "This is a good way for our families to connect," Gray says. "We like to have a real nice community feel here at our school and, you know, nothing's better than just getting together working in the gardens, putting your hands in the dirt." (photos by David Brendan Hall)

View of the pollinator garden, designed and built entirely by kindergarteners and first-graders: "Kids ... they really get it," Gray says. "When you begin to have this big, natural environment that we have here, it fosters this lovely curiosity. It comes right back into what we're trying to get across, which is creating stewardship."

Students are the chief architects, even down to writing applications for grants, like the one awarded via the city's Bright Green Futures grant program to excavate this new pond: "I really love the group-based projects that they do here," says Shannon Wisner, public information specialist for Austin's Office of Sustainability (pictured surveying the future pond site). "[The Bright Green Future Grant] is one of the biggest school-based grant programs available in Austin." (Note: Grant applications to fund school sustainability projects up to $3,000 can still be submitted through Oct. 1. More info:

A slice of one of two 20-pound watermelons harvested Sunday – a midday snack, but also an ecological lesson: "This year, we're focusing pretty heavily on food," Gray says. "We'll touch on food deserts ... an area or region that does not have access to healthy, fresh food ... and on making the awareness and the connections with our students so they can get out and be the social justice leaders."

Ornes and Gray, pack leaders as four-year EcoWellness teachers at ADS, emphasize the continual need for community helpers, especially on Garden Work Day: "We would not be able to do this without [parent volunteers]," Ornes says. "[But] the students are what really keep it running throughout the school year." (Note: Non-ADS adults and kids are welcome to contact the school and volunteer anytime.)

ADS's EcoWellness program strives to ingrain empathy, though Ornes and Gray insist they're merely helping kids tap into values that inherently exist within them: "We're saying, 'Here are the facts. What can you do with those facts?'" Gray says. Adds Ornes: "[Students] take a look in and connect their emotions to their thoughts and take it from there."

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Austin Discovery School, Garden Work Day, Tim Ornes, Thora Gray, EcoWellness, Shannon Wisner

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