Byron Center — Before her family moved to Byron Center in 2019, Christie Koester knew she wanted to get involved at the school her two children would attend.
She planted her seeds of interest in Countryside Elementary’s school garden and volunteered her time to maintain it. In a few short years, her involvement blossomed into forming a horticulturist team of third- and fourth-graders to care for the garden.
Now, Koester’s green thumb and grant-writing capabilities have helped Countryside receive more green, in the form of $1,700 from the Tanger Kids grant program.
Funds from the “Growing our Garden, Our Kids and the Community” grant will go towards supplies and educational programs for Countryside’s garden, as well as seeds to continue growing garlic, radishes, pumpkins, potatoes, corn, tomatoes and other fruits and veggies.
‘I love seeing moments of wonder and having it be a joyful first experience (for students) in the garden.’— Parent volunteer Christie Koester
“This couldn’t have come at a better time for us,” Koester said. “We’re looking for ways to expand the experiential learning in the garden so all students can get hands-on experience”
The grant funds will provide gardening tools for students and help with year-round maintenance, Koester said. She also plans to help students grow their own plants from seeds inside Countryside’s hallways and classrooms and eventually move them outside to the garden.
“We’re so blessed to have this space … and I want to make sure that every child has at least one point of contact with the garden during their time at Countryside,” Koester said.
Principal Cindy Viveen said Koester serves an integral role at Countryside.
“We are very grateful for Christie’s dedication to our school community,” she said. “With this grant, our students will be able to continue to develop a passion for gardening and learn about a practice that they may not have otherwise.”
Having Fun While Learning
Around 60 students have served on the horticulturist team since its inception and Koester said she is looking forward to getting another batch of fourth-graders working in the garden this spring. The team follows the principles of Countryside’s Leader in Me program, where students take on different roles to serve as leaders in the school, Koester said in a previous interview with SNN.
Students interested in working in the garden have to apply to be part of the team, once in the fall and again in the spring; once selected, they spend one recess every week in the garden.
Koester said one of her goals is to encourage and support teachers in their use of the garden with their students.
“My dream is finding out what our teachers need,” she said. “Whether it’s lesson plans to fit their curriculum or having someone else come in and lead it, my focus really is on having fun while learning.
“I love seeing moments of wonder and having it be a joyful first experience (for students) in the garden.”
Viveen said Countryside is fortunate to have Koester as a volunteer in the garden, as well as in the classrooms — specifically, in her second-grader Max’s class.
“Christie works with teachers to plan activities in the garden or in the classroom that support learning about the art and sustainability of gardening,” Viveen said. “(She) puts many hours into planning activities, teaching our students about the benefits and responsibilities of a garden, and is always thinking of new ways to bring the joy of growing to our students.
“She has not only kept our garden thriving but has also built a wonderful opportunity for families to gather, work cooperatively and develop friendships while supporting our garden.”
During the summer, Koester can still be found caring for the school garden and recruiting families to join her. This year, she also hopes to build a garden committee to keep staff, parents and the community involved in sustaining the garden long-term.
“Every single time I’m out in the garden with kids and families, it’s an immediate positive feeling,” Koester said. “I feel like my cup is full, and thinking about longer-term benefits about active learning is the icing on the cake for me.
“Establishing community relationships is so soul-filling, and I hope other people will experience that as well.”