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Liberty High School Greenworks: Students, nonprofits, educators collaborate to fund & construct new sustainable nursery

Modified: Monday, Mar 14th, 2011

PHOTO 1: Liberty High School students Briandi Sanchez, Karina Mireles, Luz Velasquez and Christina Herrera volunteered to participate in the Greenworks Spring Open House on Saturday, March 12. PHOTO 2: Participants get their feet dirty during a cob building exercise. PHOTO 3: Liberty High School Principal Bob Bourgault converses with Paso Robles Joint Unified School District Board of Trustees Member Robert Simola, surrounded by thousands of plants. PHOTO 4: Liberty High School Student Jeanette Gonzalez waters plants on Saturday as members of the public gathered to get a glimpse of the school's new nursery. PHOTO 5: The soy candle making business at Liberty High School was on-hand to sell goodies to the public on Saturday. Photos by Josh Petray.

Surrounded by thousands of potted plants ranging from California native ceanothus to black and white mulberry trees harvested from local fruit seed onsite, the smell of soy candles in the air and whiz of marketing students documenting it all to pump up future sales – Liberty High School students shook hands with the public over the weekend during the GreenWorks Plant Nursery Spring Open House.

The hands-on, sustainable learning event – featuring the school's brand new nursery, Soy Delight, and Greenworks Marketing – represented the collaborative efforts of nonprofit One Cool Earth, the high school, First Solar, California Conservation Corps, Nature's Touch Nursery and the many others who have stepped forward over roughly the past four years donating, supporting and helping bring the student-led GreenWorks Plant Nursery to realization.

Gathered in a sloped corner section at the rear of the school site, officials like Paso Robles Joint Unified School District Board of Trustees member Dr. Robert Simola marveled in the achievements of the students and had the chance to learn about things like worm-composting basic cob building taught by Liberty students.

"I have to wonder which is more impressive: The work that they have done, or the students themselves?" said Simola, pointing to the estimated 6,000 plants now available for the public to purchase and receive. "I think I am more impressed with the students," adding that he would be returning later to pick up his new student-grown mulberry tree.

The nursery features a variety of plants, shrubs, fruit trees and other floral species, harvested and planted by students and purchased through seed money offered through sponsors First Solar and One Cool Earth.

Nearby, students like Karina Mireles, Irma Salazar, Zack Smith and Christina Herrera were among the many Liberty students to volunteer on Saturday, guiding the public around the various amenities featured at the nursery site, situated behind the high school on a sloped, district-owned property.

Mireles serves as executive vice-president of the Soy Delight candle team and said she liked the hands-on nature of the Greenworks program, now four years in development.

"Instead of just sitting in class and reading books about plants or anything we actually come up here and learn how to plant," Mireles said.

"I like the fact that it's more outside work instead of in the classrooms," said Smith, "It's more hands-on, and it helps me learn easier."

Herrera, who serves as president of the soy candle team, said that the soy candle team also hopes to bring its products to the public through Paso Robles farmers markets.

Nonprofit One Cool Earth has been growing trees at schools for 20 years on a small scale, but just this summer it obtained a grant from the Stewardship Council and San Luis Obispo County Community Foundation to run a program for a year with the intention of becoming self-sustaining by growing and selling plants as part of Liberty's Greenworks program, which meets once every weekday for about two hours doing everything from potting plants, collecting seeds, taking care of plants to running the business side of things. Advertising, marketing and media outreach and even accounting are all handled by the students.

Liberty High School students, in turn, are re-imbursed for their work by receiving gift cards redeemable at local, sustainable businesses, as well as scholarship funds, he said.

The program is completely self-supported by the community and receives no state or federal funding.

"It's really important for individuals to come out and buy trees when we have our workshops," Ellis said.

Ellis was able to hook up with First Solar, who pitched in to purchase 1,000 plants to be gifted to the community.

Future workshops are slated quarterly. The next three will be held in June, September and December.

Liberty High School Principal Bob Bourgault said that the idea of the program is to take more kinesthetic, hands-on learners "and do something more meaningful."

"Natural things, " Bourgault said. "It's a pathway for forestry and natural resources, and they've done every piece of this, from the ampitheater and the shed to now  – the nursery."

All of the resources to build them have been donated by the community, he said. Various clubs including the Paso Robles Optimists Club and Paso Robles Rotary Club have stepped up along the way.

The nursery project itself involved some serious hands-on labor: Liberty students helped construct new fencing around the nursery perimeter to protect it from nearby deer, terraced a hillside to make way for plants and constructed a worm composting section. In addition, Liberty students hand-planted and hand-picked the plants.

Kathryn Arbeit is the director of business development for First Solar.

She spoke to a Greenworks Class last year about the Topaz Solar Farm and solar power in general, the business and what types of jobs were being created by the industry.

Arbiet said she was both impressed with the students and excited about the day's activities.

According to Arbeit, First Solar is also working with the Atascadero Unified School District through its Greenhouse programs, and Cuesta College's solar energy training to prepare students locally who are looking to enter jobs in the solar industry.

"We really want to be engaged and open to ideas from educators on how we can be partnering with them to really take advantage of the interest that students have," Arbeit said.

Additional projects include discussion of a possible solar car project with Flamson Middle School and installation of a 30 kilowatt solar system at the Carrissa Plains Elementary School.

One of the big pluses of the nursery is that it doesn't cost the district a dime, according to Bourgault.

But bigger than that is the fact that the community and Liberty students were shaking hands, he said.

Fun may be one word to describe Saturday's event.

But along with the fun, students were learning some valuable lessons including economic standards, government standards, earth science standards and physical education standards, according to Bourgault.

"The interrelationship between real life work and school makes it much more meaningful for them," said Bourgault.

* Assist Liberty Nursery

Liberty High School Nursery is currently accepting donations of used pots and other materials including much-needed gardening tools, a rototiller and more. The 1,000 certificates donated by First Solar are valid for one year and can be redeemed at any of the quarterly open houses or public events where the nursery's plants are available.

Plants are currently available for purchase for roughly $4, $5 and $6 apiece.

For information on how to donate, visit www.onecoolearth.org or call Ellis at 760-382-5164.

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