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Growing Up Together at Blanchet

November 01, 2021
By Dr. Micki Halsey Randall

In March, we organized a new extracurricular opportunity for students at Blanchet Catholic School that focuses on environmental stewardship.  We formed a team and joined CEI - Caretakers of the Environment International.  CEI (caretakers4all.org) is an international organization dedicated to environmental protection through education, commitment and action of youth and their teachers. The CEI organization holds a conference each summer in which school teams share environmental projects, posters, and cultural videos with one another.  In anticipation of attending the conference, we quickly got to work brainstorming ideas for a project based on the conference theme of sustainable communities.

Ten students joined me for the first CEI team at Blanchet.  After brainstorming and researching project ideas, we decided to build a garden.  We named our project "Growing Up Together" because all the students were freshmen and growing together along with growing the food in our garden.  The name also invoked the need for togetherness, an ever-present theme in today's culture.

In alignment with our goals, we participated in an outreach project on Earth Day.  We spent the afternoon helping the students at Queen of Peace improve their outdoor learning spaces and plant their vegetable gardens.  This experience inspired us to look at our own outdoor learning environment (OLE), too.  We spent two separate days revitalizing our OLE with the help of other students and adults in addition to the CEI team.  The support of students on campus included the AP Biology class which created a pollinator garden in the OLE as their legacy project.  The CEI team now cares for the area and it's definitely attracting those bees!

Before beginning our own food planting, we toured the Youth Farm of Marion Polk Food Share.  The facility grows food for people facing health issues and food insecurity, and uses organic sustainable agricultural methods.  We enjoyed our tour and learned so much to bring back to our plans for our new garden.  The visit also led to two of our team members joining the Harvest Crew on the Youth Farm this summer.

The last step before completing our garden was securing the funds and supplies.  Many parents stepped up to help.  After students and parents built our new planter box using reclaimed materials, Scenic Valley Farms, Margie's Farm and Garden, and Bark Boys helped us fill it.  Sally White, the person who first introduced us to CEI, brought tomato, kale, tomatillo, and potato starts to get our garden going.  Our little raised garden was finally a reality.  Students took turns caring for our garden throughout the summer and sharing our bounty with the community.  

In addition to our raised garden, we added green space to the parking lot on campus.  With the help of parents and team members, we removed a section of concrete in an unused portion of the parking lot.  We then prepped it and planted a tree.  When the tree matures, it will provide shade to the area, clean our air, reflect beauty, and remind us of the impact we all can have on the planet.  

With our project complete, we turned to preparations for the virtual conference.  We created a cultural video to share what life is like for American teens, a poster of the highlights of our project, and a video with details of the project.  All of these were shared at the international conference in July.  For the conference, our students were camera-ready by 5:00 a.m. all week long!  They were a tired crew, but the experience was amazing.  We heard from multiple groups and people, with the highlight being Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland!  She was inspirational and several students found a new role model in her.  Students also participated in small group sessions with games, competitions, and plenty of new things learned. We met and interacted with people from all over the world, including some countries we were not familiar with like North Macedonia and Malawi.  One of our students shared with me the power of hearing people her age from all over the world sharing similar concerns about our environment and inspiration to make changes for the better.

The next CEI conference will be hosted in Costa Rica.  We are so excited to continue our works as a CEI team and share that work again.  The theme for the coming year centers on water, and we already have ideas expanding our projects from this year and incorporating water conservation in our plans. 

The experience inspires me.  As a teacher, I am moved by the dedication and motivation of this group of students. As a Catholic, I am thrilled to see this team putting into action what Pope Francis called all of us to do in his encyclical letter Laudato Si' in 2015.  In this profound and timely document, the Pope calls on all of us to take action to care for our common home.  He also recognizes the critical role of education in this endeavor.  "Good education plants seeds when we are young, and these continue to bear fruit throughout life" (#213). I am more than hopeful the students on the CEI team and future students will continue to care for God's creation in meaningful and substantial ways.  As Pope Francis reminds us, "There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions, and it is wonderful how education can bring about real changes in lifestyle" (#211).

If you are interested in learning more about CEI, our team at Blanchet Catholic School, or becoming involved in our projects, please reach out.  I would be happy to connect with you.