Program provides variety of ways to serve

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 11, 2001

Ninth-grader Nate Lyles spoke with pleasure as he pointed out the large plot of ground lying ready for tilling. The vegetable garden was taking shape, and he was looking ahead to summer days when crops would be ripe for picking. More than a place for growing vegetables, the garden at Natchez High School symbolizes the spirit Lyles and other students have seen rising among the more than 250 of them who now take part in the Learn and Serve program.

As the garden grows, so do the gardeners. &uot;My grandfather had a garden,&uot; Lyles said. &uot;I guess I started gardening with him when I was about 5 or 6 years old. I’ve helped quite a few here who had never gardened, never held a shovel or rake in their hands.&uot;

The garden is only one facet of the program operating at the high school through a grant secured by Winnie Kaiser of the Natchez-Adams County Economic Development Authority.

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The EDA connection

Kaiser said she has fielded many questions as to how her agency finds itself writing grants for schools.

&uot;If we don’t get our educational standards up to those of the rest of the country, we’re not going to bring in new business and industry,&uot; Kaiser said. &uot;People need to know this is a vital part of our economic development. This is our future.&uot;

Kaiser connects education and economic development with clarity and enthusiasm.

&uot;Our program was designed to develop initiative, independent reasoning and learning in students,&uot; she said. &uot;We want the students to develop organizational skills that transfer to many occupations. We are showing the students the benefits of community service hoping they will graduate, continue their education at a college or university, then return to Adams County to work and live.&uot;

Ambitious? Indeed, it is an ambitious program, Kaiser said. Goals are set high for the participating young people, who cross all levels of academic achievement.

Challenging? Ask Randy Laird, adult leader of the program, which takes place four afternoons a week after the school day ends.

&uot;This has been the most wonderful opportunity for me,&uot; Laird said. &uot;The positive effects on the students are obvious. At their age they often don’t recognize their talents. I’ve seen students who haven’t been motivated before become more sensitive to getting an education and serving the community.&uot;

Kaiser applied for the Learn and Serve Lighthouse Partnership grant when she discovered that the Mississippi Department of Education School-to-Careers program, funded by a three-year grant, included an after-school requirement.

&uot;When I found out about the Learn and Serve grant, it made sense to apply for the funding so that we would not have to use a large portion of the School-to-Careers funds to run an after-school program,&uot; Kaiser said.

Finding co-sponsors was not difficult, she said. Partners are the Natchez-Adams School District, Copiah-Lincoln Community College and the Natchez-Adams Chamber of Commerce. Industries have made contributions. &uot;We have received substantial funds from Entergy, International Paper, BellSouth, Aluminum Company of America and Natchez Community Hospital.&uot;

Growing and communicating

A typical afternoon in the Learn and Serve program begins with announcements and a discussion of the day’s agenda. Students lead the opening activities, and adult leader Randy Laird continues the program by passing out the brochure of the day. Subjects of the &uot;For Teens Only&uot; brochures are tough, including issues such as teen pregnancy and sexual violence as well as communications skills and job-finding tips.

&uot;It’s vitally important that you take a look at the facts in this brochure,&uot; Laird told the group as he passed out the day’s leaflet, which discussed teen pregnancy. &uot;Mississippi has the highest teen pregnancy rate. Read this and pass it on to a friend, to someone you love.&uot;

Laird looks at the Learn and Serve program as a way for students to stretch to their highest potential. &uot;I’m not an educator, but I think I can relate to these students. I encourage them. I try to get them to consider their options. I try not to talk at them but with them. They know that the more responsibility they show they can handle, the more we’ll give them.&uot;

For Natchez High teacher Susan Freeney, the Learn and Serve program has multiple benefits. &uot;Students in my classes who attend the program are really enjoying it. I think it’s just been a long time since someone has showed any interest in them. The parents often don’t have the time or the resources to do these extra things with them.&uot;

Freeney sees the volunteer spirit growing in the young people and cites it as a good omen for the future.

&uot;They are giving back to their school,&uot; she said, referring to the gardening and landscaping work in particular. &uot;Ultimately, they will see how they can give back to their community.&uot;

Ninth-grader Audrey Woods, a saxophone player in the high school band, joined the program because she thought it would be fun. &uot;Mr. Laird makes it fun,&uot; she said. &uot;I really like being out in the garden, working around flowers and learning more about them.&uot;

Bryan Grinnell, also in the ninth grade, likes the program for the chance to meet other students at Natchez High.

&uot;I’ve met a whole bunch of people I’d never met. They are really nice people to be around. We’re all getting along well, and that’s most important. Before we can do anything, we have to get along.&uot;

Kacy Russ, who is in 11th grade, likes the carryover she has found between school and the community. As recycling coordinator for the group, she has taken part in some cleanup efforts, picking up trash around the campus. &uot;That has made me notice trash out in other parts of the community.&uot;

Russ enjoys the group activities. She thinks learning to work in a group will be valuable to her in college and in the future.

&uot;If we stick together the way we are now, the program will just keep on growing. People will see what we do and they will hear about it,&uot; she said.

Richard Stewart, another 11th grader, liked the concept of the program from the beginning.

&uot;I’ve been in the program since the beginning. It seemed to be a good way to learn how to serve.&uot;

He has not been disappointed.

&uot;I feel we really are learning how to make a difference and help the community.&uot;

Nate Lyles, the 9th-grader whose knowledge of gardening has made him a leader in that project, echoes the thoughts of many students in the Learn and Serve program.

&uot;It’s helping us to expand our horizons. We can take what we learn here back to our own neighborhoods and help there,&uot; Lyles said.

&uot;We’re learning self respect. And we’re learning to have a better respect for nature.&uot;

When summer arrives and plants bend from the weight of heavy ripe fruit, Lyles and others will be there to pick. Produce will go to organizations that feed the needy, such as the Stewpot.

&uot;When I feel myself getting mad about something, I can think about the garden and calm myself down,&uot; Lyles said.