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Down and Dirty

Rain doesn’t stop Hollin Meadows community from breaking ground on new wildlife habitat.

When Sunday dawned as clammy and drizzly as the Saturday that preceded it, parents and children at Hollin Meadows Elementary could have looked out their windows and begged off spending an afternoon on their knees in the mud spading flowerbeds, or swinging pick-axes overhead then man-handling saplings into hip-deep holes. But they came. And Hollin Meadows broke ground on its new wildlife habitat one day late, April 23.

Fathers took turns wielding mattocks to break up the earth. Mothers planted shrubs and flowers. They comforted crying toddlers and calmed older siblings who milled across the field in a blur of child-sized spades and shovels, rubber raincoats and calf-high gumboots.

“To see kids digging in dirt and picking up plants and grubs … is really just invaluable,” said parent Kim Monroe.

“What they’re trying to do long term is get people interested in planting and how things grow,” said State Sen. Toddy Puller (D-36), who was one of the officials present at the groundbreaking along with Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerry Hyland. Puller added, “My kids went to this school so it’s nice to see it still thriving and growing.”

The wildlife habitat under construction is located in the school’s front yard. It will incorporate plants that are indigenous to Virginia to attract animals like birds, butterflies, and frogs. “All critters that you want,” explained PTA president Sue Bernstein.

Jon Gates, the principal of Hollin Mills, described the habitat as an “outdoor classroom environment.” Students will have the opportunity to observe and document the seasonal changes in flora and the animals that pass through or dwell in the habitat. “In addition to learning applications of science, social studies, and math [the habitat will create] an appreciation for environmental issues, for the greening and beautification of the neighborhood,” Gates said.

Shawn Akard, another parent at the school, was one of the prime movers of the project. “I believe that children are losing that connection with the natural world,” she said. “We’re fortunate my kids have a yard and can go out and dig in it.” She said she worried about the many students in the school who live in apartment buildings and did not have the same access to earth.

AKARD said the idea for the greening of the school germinated last spring. Behind the building there was an open area between the school’s two wings, “I kept looking at it thinking ‘Something needs to happen there, something needs to happen.’” What happened was a garden nearly the length of a football field. Each class has a plot in this garden, and the students helped decide what to plant this fall. “It’s been really fun this spring, as things have started to pop up,” said Gates. “It’s a real eye-opening [experience] for the kids [to see] where their food sources come from.” Akard said the garden allows students to “be able to tell the difference between a bulb, a seed, a tuber … to see it go into the ground and then to pull it back out and harvest it … It’s just an absolute blast for them to see that.”

The garden and wildlife habitat would not exist if the school had been obliged to do everything on its own. “It’s been a really great bringing together of many different aspects of the community,” said Gates, “businesses, neighborhood folks, kids, parents.” Peggy Bowers, the American Horticultural Society’s horticulturalist at River Farm, designed the plans for the garden. Lowe’s donated all the hardscape, such as walkways, benches, and birdbaths. The Girl Scouts held a bake sale in the school lobby to raise money for the project. The Boy Scouts are planning to come install bird houses donated by the National Audubon Society and the Wild Bird Center. Nurseries along Route 1 donated plants.

School Board Representative Dan Storck, his wing-tips caked with mud, took time from swinging a hoe to explain the significance of the habitat. “It’s a school beautification project but it’s also to make the school more environmentally sensitive … We’re becoming more aware of the passive benefits of nature … This is one big, huge, demonstration science project.”

Casey Arnold worked closely with Akard to transform the wildlife habitat from idea to dirt, root and leaf. He said he is the parent of students in Kindergarten, first grade and third grade, “so I’ll be here for a while … It’s a great opportunity to introduce a lot of interesting concepts to the kids.” Arnold hopes that in the future the habitat will exemplify ways that humans can reduce their impact on nature, incorporating energy-saving technologies such as a “green” roof on a gazebo and a fountain powered by solar panels.

NANCY BARBER, who was PTA president at Hollin Meadows thirty years ago and is still a neighbor of the school, approached Akard to congratulate her on the successful groundbreaking and the learning environment that will result.

“They can understand disease,” she joyfully told Akard.

“They can understand mud,” Akard replied.

“It’s really outstanding,” said Barber, “I watched [Hollin Meadows] when it was a tiny little school and I’m watching it evolve now … it’s really important to me as a community member and a grandmother.”

“This is what it’s all about,” Barber added. “Nature. Blight. How things grow. How they die … It almost makes me cry actually.”

“Being part of something bigger than just us,” said Akard.

Barber nodded, “And it’s all so beautiful.”