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Center For Students With Disabilities Uses Gardening, Creativity To Teach

Local Gainesville artist Jesus Martinez traces over a projection picture of Tom Petty as he begins his mural on Feb. 27. (WUFT News)
Local Gainesville artist Jesus Martinez traces over a projection picture of Tom Petty as he begins his mural on Feb. 27. (WUFT News)

Sidney Lanier Center, a center for elementary and secondary students with disabilities in northeast Gainesville, has expanded its traditional learning tactics to the outdoors and the transformations continue -- in an artistic way.

On Feb. 27, local Gainesville artist Jesus Martinez began a mural on the side of a building at SLC to honor Gainesville legend Tom Petty. Jesus said painting this mural at SLC is fitting because Petty attended what is now known as SLC while growing up in Gainesville with his parents, Kitty and Earl, and his brother, Bruce. Jesus is working alongside his wife, Carrie Martinez, to complete the larger-than-life mural.

“Tom Petty is a Gainesville legend,” Jesus said. “I wanted to do something different with the mural for the kids and the city.”

Two additional murals are in the plans to cover the blank-canvas walls bordering the garden. Two different artists, both from Jacksonville, will soon begin work on two separate murals to beautify the garden.

In 2015, students of the center started the Sidney Lanier Community Garden with the help of volunteer master gardener Susan Lucas. Lucas, who is a member of the School Garden Initiative program, said the garden creates a dynamic atmosphere that provides students with a hands-on approach to traditional learning and helps students transition to the real world.

The garden is used by the whole school and its existence is not possible without the student’s help. Students interact with the garden in all aspects from building the garden beds to watering daily. The garden is used as a reward for exceptional behavior in the classroom, Lucas said.

This year, blueberries and strawberries were an addition to the garden. Other plants in the garden include herbs, for cooking and sensory therapy; carrots; kale; and many others, said Lucas.

“The students enjoy being out in the garden,” Lucas said. “To see the delight on their faces while they’re out there is the most rewarding part for me.”

“It’s not a garden. It’s an outdoor classroom,” said Wanda Moffett, a teacher at SLC. SLC is the only center in the Alachua County Public School district that specifically serves students with disabilities. The center is located at 312 NW 16th Ave.

Moffett said the outdoor classroom teaches employability skills, teamwork, and seed-to-plate education – a way of introducing students to the entire cycle of food. She said this is something that will serve them for a lifetime.

Gardening can have many health benefits for people with disabilities. In a study conducted at California Polytechnic State University, gardening showed to improve concentration, reduce mental fatigue, improve psychological health and improve performance in attention-demanding tasks.

“It’s exciting to see the older students teaching the younger ones,” Moffett said.

Moffett said that SLC has a fully functioning kitchen that the staff and students use to cook the garden fresh food they grow.

“We’ve made kale chips,” Moffett said proudly of her student’s work adding that they also made baba ganoush – an eggplan- based spread.

The outdoor classroom continues to take shape and expand while serving about 150 three- to 22-year-old students.

Soon, SLC will become the seventh school in the area to implement a butterfly garden.

Andrei Sourakov, a lepidopterist at the University of Florida’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, said this program is an effort to conserve butterflies in urban areas. The goal of the butterfly garden program is to introduce students to the concept of gardening and to close the gap between students and nature.

Sourakov said the partnership between the McGuire Center and local schools began in 2013, when Duval Elementary School was the first to participate. The other schools participating in the butterfly program are Williams Elementary School; Norton Elementary School; J.J. Finley Elementary School; Westwood Middle School; and P.K. Yonge Elementary School.

“Students tend to enjoy it. With a few exceptions, this is usually the first time that they have done any sort of gardening,” Sourakov said. “Usually the second time around they remember how to do it and feel very comfortable handling plants.”

The garden at SLC is organic and has been created and will continue to grow without the help of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers. The garden is a result of generous community donations.

The City Beautification Board annually awards buildings or public spaces that add beautification to the communities. It has chosen the SLC’s garden along with the other gardens in the School Garden Initiatives program to receive the award. The award will be presented on April 25.

Caelan is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing