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Campus and Community

Cultivating Tenderness: College Corps Students Help Local Kids at City Farm SLO

A Cal Poly student, left, kneels down to pick kale with a high school student in a garden.
Written By Gabby Ferreira | Photos by Dylan Head

On a bright spring morning, three Cal Poly students prepare for a therapeutic horticulture program at City Farm SLO — one of several educational programs they facilitate throughout the week.

The students, Isabella Jamner, Michael Hu and Kennedy Martin, are all #CaliforniansForAll College Corps members in the first year of their fellowship — and three of the 185 Cal Poly fellows serving the community this year. As part of their work at City Farm SLO, they not only help with farming but work with the farm’s education coordinator, Olivia Hansel, to connect local students to agriculture while having fun.

A Cal Poly student guides a high school student as he pets a chicken at a farm.
Isabella Jamner, left, helps a high school student pet a chicken held by Olivia Hansel, right.

The bus from San Luis Obispo High School pulls up, and a group of students from a special education class file out, all smiles. They come to the farm every Tuesday for therapeutic horticulture, according to Danielle Ramirez, a longterm substitute teacher who’s been in charge of the class for the last few months.

“They’re always excited to come here,” Ramirez said. “The volunteers are so good with the kids and really take their time with them.”

To start, the high school students make name tags and have a greeting circle with Hansel and the fellows. Then it’s off to an enclosure with chickens and sheep so the students can pet the animals and feed them a snack of hay and alfalfa. One student heads into the chicken coop and grins as he holds up a fake egg, placed there precisely for him to discover.

Two high school students and a Cal Poly College Corps fellow pet a sheep at a farm.
Kennedy Martin, right, pets a sheep with two of the high school students. 

Then they head back to the Garden for All, an accessible growing space that features multiple garden beds with different types of plants. The fellows help the students fill watering cans and harvest veggies that will later go to the SLO Food Bank or local schools.

“This is a space where students can have free reign to plant what they want to plant, make mistakes and harvest things,” said City Farm Executive Director Kayla Rutland. “Therapeutic horticulture can improve students’ mental health, their social self-efficacy, their confidence — and it really builds critical life skills.”

Kathleen Marshall, an aide with the high school class, said she sees a marked difference between the beginning of the school year, when the class first started making trips to City Farm, and now.

A Cal Poly student helps a high school student pick kale in a garden.
Michael Hu, left, helps a high school student pick kale in the Garden for All.

“The first time we came out, they were all in a huddle, like deer in headlights, and now they’re so comfortable with the staff. It’s nice to see,” Marshall said. “This has become a safe space for our students.”

As the group settles into a comfortable rhythm in the garden, Martin and one of the students, Grace, kneel down by a bed of cabbage and get to work, picking off leaves and putting the prepared heads in a crate.

Other students choose to fill up watering cans and help water the plants, or plant bean seedlings in plastic pots. The group ends their time gathered around tables in the garden, sipping cups of lavender and borage tea made with herbs grown just steps away, and Hansel distributes any excess produce to students who want it.

A Cal Poly student and a high school student pick cabbage in a garden.
Grace, left, and Kennedy Martin, right, harvest cabbage in the Garden for All.

“I feel like I get as much out of it as the students get. It’s just as relaxing to me to harvest and meet the animals,” said Martin, a third-year theater major. “It’s been a really, really great experience.”

In addition to facilitating educational programs like this, the College Corps fellows at the City Farm help with farming and hit all three focuses of the program: climate change, food insecurity and education. 

“Our students serving at City Farm are learning about sustainable farming practices and food insecurity because they’re learning how to harvest food that’s getting donated to our local schools and food banks. They’re learning about K-12 education because they’re hosting field trips from our local schools and teaching them about farming practices,” said College Corps Program Manager Allison Priola. “They’re really taking our Learn by Doing model at Cal Poly and putting it into action.”

A black cat lays on the ground and basks in the sun.
Cloudy, City Farm SLO's resident cat, basks in the sun and enjoys some pets before the therapeutic horticulture session.

But beyond the practical impacts of their work on the farm, the Cal Poly fellows are helping the younger students gain greater confidence, social skills and an appreciation for nature.

“I’ve really watched you guys grow with the students,” Hansel told the fellows, after the high school students left. “You treat them with such tenderness, and I really appreciate it."

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