Randy Ryan is the American Heart Association Teaching Gardens program manager in Los Angeles. The program fights childhood obesity by teaching children how to successfully grow, harvest and replant organic vegetable gardens in urban communities. There are over 350 Teaching Gardens in the United States. Randy is also a spokesperson for the Farmer Veteran Coalition, which helps combat veterans reintegrate back into society through farming.
Through Teaching Gardens, I have worked with many students from varying backgrounds. I see how the nutrition lessons learned in the garden influence many other aspects of school, service and home life. One student’s story in particular stands out in my mind. Now in high school, I have watched this young man evolve since he was in the seventh grade.
When I first met him in 2011, he was in middle school in South Los Angeles. I was warned by a teacher that he had behavior issues and a difficult home life. During our Teaching Gardens sessions, he was often disruptive to the class. Instead of reacting and scolding him in front of his classmates, I would ask that he go back into the indoor classroom while the rest of us gardened and learned in the outdoor classroom. This approach worked over time. He became less combative and more helpful, slowly sharing, working well with others and being respectful to everyone. He worked very hard, encouraged other students to join and took pride in the small garden.
At one point, there were irrigation problems at the site and he asked if he could help me figure them out after school. The Principal gave him permission and confided in me that school was his “safe” place and the longer he could stay, the better. So he helped. We talked. I got to know him a little better.
When he left middle school to go to high school, he ended up going to a school that also had a Teaching Garden. It is a large and complex garden program with over 20 boxes, a new orchard and has a functioning green house. I was thrilled to know that as he matured, he was moving on to a place that offered a more bountiful challenge for him. It is the perfect marriage.
Now on the honor roll, this student is a recipient of many school service awards. He has asked me write a letter of recommendation for his college application. I am happy to oblige.
He plans to be a landscape architect.
Our Teaching Gardens continue to thrive, provide support for other programs at AHA and lead to positive influences in some of our communities that need it the most.