NEWFOUNDLAND - The heartfelt efforts of a community were recognized at Wallenpaupack South Elementary School recently. Dubbed the “WPSE Green Thumbed Kids” by visionary and kindergarten teacher Liz Conklin, the students and staff at WPSE connected with others throughout the region for a “Farm to Table” project, that became more than it was originally intended.

A project that began when Conklin was looking to do “something different” for Earth Day, led the students in the entire school to participate in several hands-on lessons that incorporated key subjects; as measurements were taken to build plant boxes or they counted over 600 milk cartons that would house the seeds, that became vegetables and were later given to area food pantries.

But September 23, the school was given a plaque by representatives from Evergreen Packaging who sponsored the contest, for being one of four in the nation to win the Carton 2 Garden award. The Marketing Director at Evergreen Packaging Erin Reynolds and the Marketing Manager Katie Simmons traveled to WPSE after selecting the school because they felt the enthusiasm of all involved was special.

The collaboration between everyone, Simmons said was “impressive” because each and every student took part in the contest, whether by planting multiple seeds or volunteering over summer vacation to water the vegetables at the school. The community’s involvement too, Simmons said made WPSE’s project better than the company could have imagined.

The purpose of the contest, Simmons explained is to “encourage students to repurpose their cartons.” Through the contest, whether it be an entire school, a class or even just a team of children they can collect cartons to use as planters for seedlings or for gardens.

After collecting and cleaning 652 chocolate and white milk cartons, the students started planting their seeds in January. There were many factors that helped WPSE win, such as the inclusion of the entire school, “Skyping” with professionals at the Botanical Garden in New York City to learn about planting, and the community’s support as area businesses donated materials like seeds, soil and more.

The school’s resourcefulness and creativity was essential in their win, as part of the presentation included an earth and universe formed by students and staff wearing various colored shirts. All total there were 157 entries that came from several academic bodies of different sizes; but WPSE’s project was different Reynolds said, because the inclusion of technology was a “really unique aspect that stood out.” Simmons added that, the entire school’s participation was special too, as each student planted at least two seeds.

Through the contest, Reynolds said Evergreen Packaging hopes to educate children about the “importance of healthy eating,” sustainability and “leading an ecofriendly lifestyle” by recycling.

Conklin said such projects are important because it was a chance for the students to help themselves; she explained that, there are students who receive free or reduced lunch and so, for children to see where their vegetables come from was a great learning opportunity.

Since WPSE had to submit something in April, the students started planting in January. But soon, the vegetables were growing so well, that school custodian Mike Leighton sat with the kindergarten students for over two hours and transplanted each seedling from the milk cartons to larger containers. Since the vegetables were growing so fast, some went home with the students and others were sold to support the food pantry. At one point, the young gardeners were able to give 15 zucchinis in one trip.

This year, the project is going to continue to grow as Conklin plans on purchasing a greenhouse, a toolshed and water barrels with the winnings from the contest. Other lessons will occur too, because 5th graders will learn about composting, which will then be used in the garden.

A 5th grader last year Wyatt Peifer said winning the Carton 2 Garden contest is “amazing” because he had fun while, he also learned about teamwork, friendship and helping others.

Another 5th grader from last year, Anastasia Ioppolo said the Carton 2 Garden project was a “phenomenal experience” because she and her classmates were able to have fun while also participating in a project that helped others.

Alex Terrones, who was a 5th grader last year, said building the garden was tough because the boxes were big. But, he did note that despite the challenge, seeing the finished boxes was rewarding because he had never built anything before.

After touring the food pantry and seeing where the fruits of their labor is going, Peifer said “helping out felt really good.”

Now that the students have planted gardens, 1st grader Brielle Ostrowski said the students can plant their own gardens because, “we learned how to make a garden when we were little.”

A promotional video is presently being made, which WPSE was one of the schools selected to participate in and so, once complete in a few weeks the video will be online at http://carton2garden.com/.

With plans for next year’s garden already underway, that include selling the vegetables and then giving the funds to the food pantries, Conklin said so often people simply give donations without the hands-on aspect; and so, with the students’ participation they are giving back to their community on a different level.

An additional part to this project, Conklin noted was the fun that was had when the students and staff had the chance to “play,” as they planted the vegetables and conducted different experiments to see what would and would not grow as the garden progressed.

Aside from enjoying gardening herself, Conklin said gardening is a great chance for students to be outdoors because of the “freedom it offers.” She explained that, when they garden the students get out of the classroom for awhile and there are sounds beyond those of the school bells. The excitement she saw this past season, as the students picked the vegetables made the project very rewarding and exciting too. As they work in the garden and learn from each other, she concluded that, “they’re not learning from a book, they’re learning from experience.”

To learn more about WPSE’s garden visit Conklin’s website at http://southkc.weebly.com/ or to learn more about the Carton 2 Garden contest visit http://carton2garden.com/.