What type of person commits himself or herself to do something that is a lot of hard work with no financial reward?


What type of person commits himself or herself to spend time working on the behalf of socially challenged kids that need a positive direction, timely support and motivation so that they can aspire beyond their current situation?


What type of person looks beyond the faults of people to see and address their needs?

Through the Project Sweet Tomato program, I am finding and learning more about these types of people.  The people that say that they are concerned about the future of today’s children, tomorrow’s children and the society that they will ultimately inherit and mean it.  These are people who undoubtedly came from working-class environments and were raised with the belief that the world does not owe you anything.  Whatever they have at this moment they have because they worked for it…they earned it   To use a popular term in a new tense…they are “old-school”…they are the offspring of the post-war generation.  There were no “rock stars”, reality show celebrities or made-in-an-instant personalities influencing their lives.  Nothing but what their parents worked hard for and what the good Lord gave them to work with to achieve their goals.  Yet they give. They give back plenty!  You know some of these people and I would like to introduce you to a few more…Ms. Bonnie Odom, Ms. Michelle Schwendemann and Ms. Maura Ryan-Kaiser.  They are the women behind the Nolan Elementary School Garden.  I had the opportunity to talk them about their background, their motivation and what they would like to achieve working with the kids in Project Sweet Tomato.  Interestingly, though they come to this from different directions they have all arrived at the same point…and it all starts with a seed!

Welcome ladies, how are you doing?


Ladies: (in unison) Fine, happy to be here!


Tell us a little about yourselves…


Bonnie Odom:  I am a recently retired employee of the Third Judicial Circuit Court where I was a finance and grants analysis for juvenile court programs.  I worked there for 27 years.

Michelle Schwendemann:  I have been at Nolan Elementary for 10 years as a Math teacher and have recently accepted the position of Math Instructional Specialist.

Maura Ryan-Kaiser:  I am Vice President of Snelling Staffing Services and have been employed there for nearly 25 years.

How or why did you get involved with Project Sweet Tomato or a community garden program?


B.O.:  I started a community garden last year (at my mother’s house) working with Youth Growing Detroit through The Greening of Detroit; I recruited students from Nolan Elementary.  I worked with 10 girls between 11 and 14 years old.  The plan was to work with those girls to become leaders for a school garden this year.  I got involved with Project Sweet Tomato after Arthur Littsey offered to help with the Nolan school garden at our first cluster workday back in April.  Actually, I twisted his arm!

M.S.:  Through Bonnie Odom.  I was working with her and the BE Culturally Exposed program to develop an exterior classroom and a community garden in which the students and the community could grow.

M.R-K.:  I got involved with Project Sweet Tomato because we have been working in the Metropolitan Detroit area for the past 25 years and part of our corporate community responsibility mission is to stay connected to the communities we serve and the opportunity to participate in this program helps us achieve two of our main goals.  One is to engage in the community and work directly with the people who live in the community and the second is to couple our connections with other businesses in the community to directly benefit the people who live there.  With Project Sweet Tomato, I envision that we will be able to accomplish both of our goals and establish a long term relationship with Nolan Elementary that will allow us to build great relationships with the teachers and students of the school and to bring to them an exposure to a wide variety of careers and industries that exist in the city so the children are able to establish a set of goals at an early age.

Very nice!  What would you like/expect to happen as a result of your participation in the program?


B.O.:  Sharing of resources and connections to others who can participate in the community surrounding Nolan School.  I can see the Nolan students being exposed to many activities available in Detroit, that they otherwise may not have the opportunity to experience.

M.S.:  Quite simply, to expose our children and community to working in and growing a garden.  You know the old saying, “Give a starving man a fish and he eats for a day, teach him to fish and he can eat for a lifetime.”  I feel the same way about teaching our students to plant seeds.  If we give them food they eat for a day, but if we teach them to garden, they will have the skills to grow their own food forever.  Gardening teaches more than just “skills”, it teaches patience, endurance, caring and many more “life skills” for a higher quality of life.

M.R-K.:  I would like to build a relationship of mutual trust and respect with the faculty, students and families of students who attend Nolan so that we may provide the children support with the garden project and also provide them support to set and achieve future goals as they mature.

So Maura, you see the potential for year-round support.  Are you talking about mentoring programs and activities like that?


M.R-K.:  Definitely!  I see the garden as a starting point for our involvement with Nolan Elementary School.  With our business customers as partners, Snelling is able to assist with exposing the children at the school to multiple career options, provide the kids a realistic scholastic path to achieving the careers they are being exposed to and assist them with setting reasonable timelines to achieve their goals.

I see a very common bond.  It’s nice and very important that you all share a vision as to what a garden can do.  What other community/charity programs do you support or participate in?


B.O.:  I am involved with several programs.  Besides being a coordinator for Youth Growing Detroit, I also work with BE Culturally Exposed, which is a non-profit that exposes inner-city youth to cultural events such as the DSO, plays and other recreational events.  We are always providing positive activities that broaden the horizons of the students.

M.S.:  I have been involved with “Sisters Against Domestic Abuse” (SADA’s House)

M.R-K.:  We participate with several schools by sitting on boards at Walsh College, ITT Technical, as well as the Michigan Association of Staffing Services Board, Snelling Advisory Group (Corporate), Goodwill Industries Business Advisory Group, and the Auburn Hills Chamber of Commerce (as a Chamber Ambassador)

I am not surprised to hear that you all are socially active in a variety of ways and it is obvious that you take your activism seriously.  On a lighter note, do you have a garden at home?  If so, what’s growing in it this year?  What’s your favorite?


B.O.:  I do not have a garden at my home, but I am continuing the garden at my Mom’s house.  I like so many vegetables; we have cabbage, squash, collard greens and peppers. My favorite is cabbage. 

M.S.:  I do not have a garden at my home this year, but I have had one in previous years.  Corn is my favorite vegetable.

M.R-K.:  My husband Jack made a raised bed garden for me this year that is 3’ x 18’.  We are growing cucumbers, squash, zucchini, string beans, tomatoes, onions, potatoes and lettuce.

What’s the school garden like?  What are you growing there?  How many students are involved? Has the local community been involved with the garden project?


B.O.:  We have 4 raised beds (4’ x 8’) in this year’s garden and we are also planting a 20’ x 10’ section to raise fall crops.  There are between 18 and 20 students currently participating in the garden club.  We would like for more adults from the community to get involved.  Naturally, we have to be careful whom we have around the kids, but there is a real need for parents to look at this as more than a babysitting service and get involved with their children.

M.S.: Yes, we do have some involvement from the community.  From the very beginning we reached out to the neighbors of the school as well as worked in conjunction with the people from the Greening of Detroit.  But like Bonnie said, we need more parental involvement!

When do you all work out in the garden?


B.O.:  We have a fixed schedule.  We are out there three days a week…Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.  Days are scheduled depending on the amount of work that needs to be done.  Because of the heat, we try not to be out there until the evening between 6:00 and 7:30p.m.  Saturdays are optional and are scheduled for the early morning hours, usually 9 to 10:30.

M.R-K.:  We have employees as well as my family involved (13 volunteers) and we try to get as many out there on the scheduled dates we can, as often as possible.

Sounds good!  Looking ahead, what would you recommend or what do you think the program needs to be better on a social/community level and/or a scholastic level?


B.O.:  I would like to see more involvement of the school staff, especially during the school year.  The program runs April thru October and if teachers and faculty show an interest and encourage the children to get involved, I feel it would give the program a giant step forward.  I can see a project like the teachers having the students to start seedlings in the classroom that could be transplanted into the garden as a step in the right direction.

M.S.:  A living growing evolving classroom in which the entire community comes together to learn and grow.  I would also like to see additional conservation businesses become involved so that perhaps Nolan can become a self-sufficient school with greenhouses and windmills.

M.R-K.:  I think it needs more organization!  A definite or firmer starting timeline and checklist to better organize volunteers.  It is very important that the program gets off properly so that we can take advantage of the services and offerings provided by support organizations like the Greening of Detroit so that we can get cool weather crops in the ground in a timely fashion so that the kids may see and benefit from several harvests.  We also have so many opportunities to plant and grow flowers and flowering trees and shrubs to add some color to the Nolan landscape and we want to enlarge the vegetable garden, so we will need to put a list of projects together and prioritize them so the kids may see their vision become a reality.

Well you can rest assured that you are not alone on these specific thoughts and appropriate actions are being considered or will be in place for the 2012 program.  Thank you all for your time and I am sure that we will be looking forward to your continued participation in the program and your ongoing support in the other areas you have identified.