Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A student harvests a pumpkin from  summer plantings.

Pumpkins that were collected
Port of Los Angeles Charter High School teacher Rachel Bruhnke talks with her students.
Rancho San Pedro Housing residents gladly accept the gifts from Port of Los Angeles Charter students.

Students Alexandra DeSanto, 15,Valeria Morales, 16, Ana Elizabeth, 15,and Leslie Acosta, 14, show off the pomegranates they collected.

By Diana L. Chapman

Nothing seemed like a sweeter Thanksgiving gift.
On a clear cool day Tuesday afternoon,  a Port of Los Angeles Charter High School Spanish teacher and about a half-dozen of her students presented gifts to residents at the Rancho Palos Verdes Housing Development – gifts of treasures they grew on their own – pumpkins, squash and pomegranates.
While it might not seem like much, the residents who received them lined up for the harvest excited to eat foods they could not afford. In a moving speech, teacher Rachel Bruhnke said this is “just the beginning” to partner and feed more residents of the low-income development.
“It started with a seed,” Bruhnke said, while surrounded by students, residents and other teachers who volunteered to help while scores of pumpkins and other produce lined the table. “The million dollar question is how much did we invest? We only invested $3. From a little bit can come a lot.”
Residents at the housing development said they were thrilled with the treats that could feed up to thirty families – pound upon pound of pumpkins --  and grateful to Bruhnke and her students, who started to grow the vegetation in the summer at the Los Angeles School District’s Science Center in San Pedro.
 The students planted, seeded, weeded and watched as the pumpkins and squash flourished. And Tuesday, they could see their efforts come full circle when they harvested the vegetables and pomegranates and brought them to the residential community.
“It’s really, really awesome,” said Valeria Morales, 16, of Wilmington, who worked the garden plot this summer with her cousin, Ana Elizabeth, 15. “I’ve seen people struggle and it’s really good to help.”
“We started coming and we planted pumpkins from scratch,” Elizabeth said. “We started getting excited and we could see: “Oh, my gosh: It’s happening!”
The fruits of the students’ labors were revealed Tuesday as the elderly, parents with young toddlers and handicapped residents lined up for the gifts. Earlier in the day, residents had used a megaphone to inform people of the incoming food.
By 1:30 p.m., they started lining up and waited patiently for the produce to be handed out.
“It’s wonderful, it’s just wonderful,” said Veronica Menoza, president of the residents’ board association. “Just knowing that we are going to get a pumpkin, a lot of us can’t afford this. Knowing that someone cares is important.”
“I feel really happy,” said Sandra Rivas, the board’s secretary. “I’m going to cook this (the pumpkin) with water and brown sugar and honey. The smaller ones we do with milk and cinnamon. We cut them into little chunks. Everybody is happy they came.”
Yesterday’s harvest was at the behest of Bruhnke, whose environmental engineering class started to tend to their own plot in the community garden. The Spanish teacher recruited the school’s custodian, Digna Gonzalez, who had become a certified master gardener through USC, to help with the cause.
Gonzalez readily did so, she said in Spanish, because for the first ten years she lived here others donated to her through community gardens when she had little money. Now, she added through a translator, she can return the favor and complete “my share of promises.”
Bruhnke also recruited fellow Spanish teachers, Lizbeth Mo Lina and Irene Atristain to come load vegetables into the cars and drive the food over.
To have grown produce to feed others, students said, was an amazing educational experience.
“I feel it’s an accomplishment,” said Dennis Lewis, a 16-year-old 11th grader from Harbor City. “It was just great. I’d never planted a field of pumpkins.”
Student Leslie Acosta, 15, a sophomore couldn’t say enough about the many lessons she learned.
“It’s been a good experience as a teenager to harvest these plants,” Acosta said. “It’s a lot of hard work and we have to think about where these foods come from. It also shows how much we have and how much we should be grateful for.”
In a relatively short time, a bunch of teenagers, a teacher and a custodian filled a lot of faces with smiles and gratitude for something so simple as growing pumpkins. While many San Pedro residents are fearful of the housing units, this group plans to continue to forge a bridge with the residents there.
Bruhnke told them all she did this for herself, for her community and her 6-year-old daughter, Alma and received a round of applause.
On this day, it seemed like the true spirit of Thanksgiving had landed here at this place and at this time, one that would continue for many falls to come.