Two years ago, Leigh-Ellen Figueroa took a class at Holyoke Community College that changed her life.
It was a Learning Community that combined a study of literature and history called "A Force More Powerful." Team-taught by HCC professors Diane Beers (history) and Deb Fairman (English), the class examined how everyday people change the world.
Earlier this week, Figueroa, a 2013 HCC graduate, returned to that class to talk about a project she hopes will change how children growing up in urban areas look at their food and view the Earth.
Her project, co-founded with HCC student Lauren Lemire, is called The Children's Garden Project. Its mission: to educate disadvantaged children about sustainable agriculture by letting them plant gardens, grow food and then eat it.
"The seeds of the project came from this class," said Figueroa, who studied sustainability at HCC and is now pursuing her bachelor's degree in sustainability at the University of Massachusetts. "You don't cause change by forcing people to do stuff. Our idea is to get people invested."
Since last spring, Figueroa, Lemire and more than a dozen other HCC student volunteers have built gardens outside the Holyoke Boys and Girls Club, the West Springfield Boys and Girls Club and Holyoke Pediatric Associates. Figueroa and Lemire put together an educational curriculum that teaches children about nature, the environment, health and nutrition and, most importantly, gets them working in the dirt.
"The idea is to get kids outside, let them dig a hole and put water in it," said Figueroa. "The communities where we work the kids don't have the opportunity to do that."
Last summer, CGP volunteers conducted four classes a week for about 70 children in Hampden County. Figueroa said the group's goal this year is to work with 200 children a week. They already have plans to build up to seven more gardens outside community-based agencies in Springfield, Chicopee and Holyoke.
"When we start a program, the kids are like, 'We don't eat vegetables. We hate vegetables,'" Figueroa said.
When she asked one group of kids what kind of vegetables they wanted to grow, their top three answers were apple pie, roses and tulips.
"We talk about radishes and worms and all that stuff," said Figueroa. "By the end of the program, they're harvesting what they're planting and they try it. They don't always like it, but that doesn't matter."
Figueroa teaches costume design part time at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts High School in South Hadley and initially came to HCC to get her degree in education. She got turned onto sustainability, though, during another Learning Community she took called "The Politics of Food" -- a course that combined sustainable agriculture and philosophy.
The garden at Holyoke Pediatric Associates was constructed as a Service Learning project in the Sustainable Agriculture course she took last spring with Professor Kate Maiolatesi. Last summer, Figueroa and the growing cadre of CGP volunteers maintained the garden and started teaching classes there.
Volunteers work for The Children's Garden Project in a variety of ways, as members of the gardening committee, teaching committee or marketing committee. Figueroa said she would like to make the group a recognized nonprofit and has applied for grants she hopes will allow some positions with the group to eventually be paid.
The main goal, Figueroa said, is to help children make the connection between what they grow and what they eat in hopes they will take those lessons home to their families and spread the word about healthy eating and caring for the planet.
"Our tagline is, 'No one is too young to change the world."
Photos: (Left) Lauren Lemire, left, Kristen Mamulski and Leigh-Ellen Figueroa, right, pull weeds last spring in the garden they helped build outside Holyoke Pediatric Associates. (Right) Figueroa talks about The Children's Garden Project at HCC.