March 3, 2011 was the official launch of Project Sweet Tomato.  It was the day where, Beverly Outland/Co-op Services Credit Union and Principal Sharon Lee/Remus Robinson Academy, the two people most directly responsible for the ultimate success of the program, came together to discuss the plan for the community garden effort.  Before we actually sat down to go over the project, Ms. Outland and I had an opportunity to experience the dynamic that exists between Principal Lee and her students.  I don’t think that it would be an exaggeration to say that what we saw was totally unexpected.  Principal Lee enjoys a relationship with her students that I would like to believe is not unique in the Detroit school system.  Her passion…her compassion…her commitment to these kids is almost too hard to define or describe.  I couldn’t help but reflect to the time that I was in school and you either hated or feared (or both) your principal.  There was never the level of outreach that we observed on this day.  Our meeting was scheduled for 3:00 p.m., and as school was letting out for the day, we were privileged to see Principal Lee in action.  Principal Lee knew every student by his/her name, she has over 450, and their parents too!  Each student has a story and her involvement with all of them, individually and collectively, transcends what I previously thought was the standard relationship between administrator and student.  It would be very easy to accept what we read or hear about the dismal state of Detroit’s school program.  But having witnessed Principal Lee in action, one should have the feeling that as long as there are professionals like her, heading our schools, our children are safe, morally secure and in a position to learn.

Before our meeting actually started we were able to see that Principal Lee’s passion for the community garden effort, we were there to discuss, was not limited to just herself.  We were taken to a classroom filled with kindergartners, where she asked, by a show of hands which students were excited and happy to participate in the gardening project.  The eager to please youngsters, with their teacher beaming, reacted unanimously to the request and then in a spontaneous gesture one-by-one and then two-by-two, surrounded the principal, clutching her and expressing their love for her.  Things like this can’t be manufactured or forced, especially not by kids.  One can’t help but be affected by such genuine displays of love and respect.  

Once we sat down, we listened as Principal Lee related how important the community garden program was not only to the school but to the community as well.  She has a plan that will get every child…at every grade level involved.  Her plan calls for a school assembly to announce the program to her students.  Participation, in her words, is mandatory.  They have already taken steps to add it to the curriculum via an online program called Discovery Education.  She also intends to get the Local School Community Organization (LSCO), formerly called the PTA, involved as she feels that garden will need to be embraced by the surrounding neighborhood.  “The entire community needs this and will benefit from the program…not just the immediate student families”.   In her eyes, the school is the anchor in the community and through programs such as this, positive values and attributes can be reinforced or taught and that they will become the cornerstone of a potentially rewarding and successful lifestyle.  Participation is mandatory!

Co-op Services Credit Union, the project’s sponsor, has also gone beyond the basic script of the program by providing the following elements…

  • Making a donation to the school and to the Greening of Detroit organization, which will be used to buy necessary tools and additional supplies for the program.
  • Coordinate a “Financial Literacy/Member Recruitment Day” for the school and for the parents/residents living adjacent to the school
  • Execute their “RockStar” program, where any student can open an account for $5.00 and the credit union will match the amount.  This program has been recognized as a successful way to introduce children to the benefits of banking…saving and managing their money.  Remus Robinson Academy will be the first Detroit school in the program. 

This is my first attempt to partner a business with a school in a community-based effort.  Co-op Services Credit Union has taken a major step in providing their voice to a movement that has far-reaching implications.  In the words of Principal Lee, Project Sweet Tomato, with the financial and enthusiastic assistance of Co-op Services Credit Union, will teach her student’s very important lessons.  “It is important for a child to see how you can start with nothing and turn it into something.  Just by planting a seed and tending to it the right way…learning by going through the process…will be a totally different and significant experience.”  No doubt, that in today’s “ready-made world based on instant gratification”, this will be a very different but rewarding experience that will last a lifetime.

If you would like to volunteer to participate in Remus Robinson Academy’s Project Sweet Tomato community garden effort or start a garden project of your own, please contact Arthur Littsey/Nine Below Zero at (313) 369-1710 or via email littsey.arthur@sbcglobal.net.  Show your support for a small program that can do a world of good.

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