Students restore greenhouse for healthy food, tranquil space

Lowe’s store contributes materials for major makeover

Ty Bower keeps plants watered in the high school greenhouse along with Sam Arnold, behind him, and other students

Tucked away behind the Rockford High School woodshop is a little world of greenery, a peaceful space where plants and flowers bloom, vegetables grow and students come to water them. 

“Those are good plants,” said Sam Arnold, a 10th grader, of the dozens arrayed around him. “I’ve been watering them.” 

So has his classmate Ty Bower, who nearby emptied a blue watering can onto a few. For Ty, Sam and other students in the school’s autism spectrum disorder and cognitively impaired classes, the greenhouse provides a weekly routine of nourishing living things, as well as a place to go when they could use a little quiet time. 

The greenhouse recently got a major makeover, thanks to the initiative of a couple of senior students and considerable contributions from Lowe’s Home Improvement. Paige Augustyn and Kylie Fongers made it a project of their health and wellness class to turn the long-neglected greenhouse into a place to grow food as well as house teachers’ plants.  

Their persistent requests got a yes from the Lowe’s Plainfield Avenue NE store. Workers built eight wooden tables on which to place plants and grow vegetables, installed new overhead misters and a storage shed, and donated hydroponic PVC pipes and an assortment of tools. 

The result: a neat, light-filled greenhouse, where before long veggies will provide healthy choices for students’ lunches.

“We found out about this greenhouse and saw how rundown it was,” said Kylie Fongers, noting many students didn’t even know it was there. “We decided as a class there wasn’t a lot of options as far as healthy eating in the building. So we wanted to grow our own food and know where it’s coming from.” 

Paige Augustyn, left, and Kylie Fongers led a class project to grow vegetables in the school greenhouse

‘You Don’t Have to Eat Junk Food’ 

Their efforts transformed the greenhouse, which was part of the original high school but had just been used for storage for many years. Paul Murphy, a non-certified teacher who works with special education students, about six years ago cleaned up the area with help from his students so teachers could store plants there.  

Three years ago he obtained a $2,500 grant from the Rockford Education Foundation to buy folding tables for the plants, and a water fountain for its calming effect on his students. 

Twice a week they come to water the plants, prune away dead leaves and sweep up. Sometimes they’ll also come to chat with each other or a teacher, get out excess energy or deal with a problem. There are benches to sit on, too. 

“It’s tranquil down here, it’s quiet,” Murphy said. “It is nice if there’s a kid in crisis and just wants to talk. Being in this environment is so much nicer than being in a concrete room with no windows.”

Kylie and Paige boosted the restoration as a project for their health and wellness class in the school’s new Creative Teaching and Learning Center. Their project group resolved to provide more healthy eating options for fellow students and thought the old greenhouse was a great place to grow them.

After they persuaded Lowe’s to contribute, store workers replaced broken-down plastic tables with sturdy wooden ones. Kylie and Paige are staining the tables, and the ASD and CI students recently planted lettuce and herbs that have begun sprouting in the vegetable beds.

“We just wanted to make a difference in the school,” Kylie said. “You don’t have to eat junk food all the time.”

“It’s just hard to eat healthy when you’re not presented with healthy options,” Paige added. Now, she said, “The students at Rockford High School can be eating these foods we grow in this greenhouse, which is really cool.”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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