Parent Volunteer Highlight: Jennifer Shaffer

To run a successful garden, it can take a village. That is why Big Green Chicago’s parent volunteers are so important. I went to the Sabin Magnet School to talk to Jennifer Shaffer, a parent volunteer, during their learning garden’s open house. Shaffer sits on Big Green Chicago’s Associates’ Board and volunteers at her daughters learning garden at the Sabin Magnet School. We talked about
her relationship with Big Green and what she sees happening in her daughter’s garden. Listen to our conversation or read the transcript!

Natalie: Hello and welcome back to the final episode of the three-part series that focuses on hearing the stories of the people behind Big Green. For this episode, I met with Jennifer Shaffer at the Sabin Dual Language Magnet School on the day of their learning garden’s open house. Jennifer is a parent who sits on the Big Green Chicago Associates’ Board and volunteers at her daughter’s learning garden. We talked about her favorite memories in the garden and how she sees the gardens positively impacting students’ and teachers’ lives. Here’s our conversation.

Jennifer: I was originally kind of associated with [Moos Elementary School] because my daughter did pre-school there. And one of the things they mentioned is that they wanted a garden, so in that search for how to do that, I came across, at the time, The Kitchen Community. And applied for a grant and went through that process and then started helping out at their garden club once or twice a week. Then, when my daughter got into school here [Sabin Elementary], they didn’t have a garden, this whole space was just so uninviting and the kids just misbehaved in this area. I told the school that if we could get together a garden committee of adults who were passionate about it, I would apply for the [Big Green] grant.

Natalie: Was it hard to get parents together or were they jumping at the idea of a garden?

Jennifer: People like the idea of the garden. The dynamic of CPS is interesting. Often parents will have an idea and they will go out and try to make it happen then there are just so many hurdles. So, yes I think people were interested [in having a garden], but they were not sure if they put the effort in if it would actually happen. So what is so amazing about Big Green is the association they have with CPS and how easy they make that process.

Natalie: The Sabin Magnet School has only had their garden, which is why they haven’t been able to use their garden with classes yet due to summer break. However, Jennifer talked about how a few teachers already jumped in over the summer to plan ways they can incorporate the garden into their classes. She believes that a teacher’s strong interest is one of the most important things in order for a successful learning garden. I asked Jennifer if she has a favorite memory from working in the Chicago learning gardens.

Jennifer: Yeah, a lot of it has to do with just kids trying thing and eating things that are different than what they would normally eat at home. There was a garden club at Moose Elementary and that same day, the basketball team ended up not having practice, so one of the girls in the garden club had a brother on the basketball team, so he decided to come to the garden club. We were making this popcorn with this parmesan and chives and when we were doing it he was like, “Ugh garden club, what’s this?”, but when we were talking about protein you get from food and nutrients you get from vegetables, he was like, “Hey I’m an athlete this is really interesting to me!”, and he and his buddies ended up probably being the most engaged in the afterschool program. But, there are a lot of different things. Also, just kids getting to talk to adults about other things than just school. You know when we’re working in the gardens kids will have middle schoolers talk to you about things they normally talk to me about! It just kind of lets them open up while they are working in the soil and planting.

Natalie: Jennifer grew up on a farm and hopes that kids gain the natural experience of farming that leads them to value and enjoy healthier foods. She also mentions the economic benefits of learning how to farm.

Jennifer: If you do just a quick google search for Chicago farming jobs, you’d be surprised at the number of farming jobs out there and there doesn’t seem to be enough qualified people to do them. So, just giving kids opportunities.

Natalie: What has work with Big Green been like?

Jennifer: Wonderful! I’ve tried to do a lot of things at elementary schools in Chicago and nothing has been as easy and successful and as rewarding as working with Big Green and installing these gardens. If I’m being completely honest, when we were first in this search to put in a garden, I kind of shied away from doing this grant where there was uniformity to the gardens, I wanted to do something different, but I ran into obstacles with that. And then when I did apply for the Big Green grant and received it – it’s not really about installing the garden. Obviously, the garden’s great, but it’s the curriculum they do afterward, and the continued professional development for the teachers that really makes it a well-rounded program and is really effective with the students. I consider them the gold star of all non-profits working with CPS. Like if everything could be this easy, we’d have a new playground and artificial turf.

Natalie: If there’s one thing you could share with people about your learning garden, what would it be?

Jennifer: Just how much a garden can really bring a community together, bring a school together. So today is our open house, we’re going to be here from 5-7pm. I love how we’re front and center, and as parents come in the kids are going to harvest things. And I brought bags for them to take produce home in and then we are going to plant for the fall. The relationships I am going to build with all of those parents, while kids are working in the garden, is very important and I think is just as important as the garden clubs and kids eating healthy. So, I’m really excited about today, so I’ve made sign-up sheets and stickers! I’ll be doing some advertising for our parent group.

Natalie: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Jennifer: Yeah, I think that what I would like to see maybe even seeing more at Big Green, just coming from a rural Illinois area and sharing the stories about what Big Green is trying to do in terms of teaching children about where their food comes from and growing and farming… [interuption from her daughter about bug]. But bridging the gap between urban and rural areas, and you know I think I could see gardens being apart of that. My parents (who are farmers in Illinois) get very offended when people have negative things to say about farming or where food comes from. They always tell me, “tell people about us, tell people what it’s like to live on a farm”, and Big Green gives me the opportunity to do that.

Natalie: The Big Green Chicago learning gardens are in great hands with volunteers like Jennifer. That is all that we have for today. Thank you so much for listening to this Big Green Chicago Podcast Series, and a special thanks to all of those who help make Big Green possible! Bye!