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Green Corps program helps students grow
Glaudi Kalonji, left, Brett Dodd, center, and Raina Bell prepare to fill a flower bed with mulch at the Gardens on Green along the edge of the parking lot of 711 Green St. - photo by Tom Reed

Imani Gardner is inspired.

Gardner, a 15-year-old Gainesville High School student, is one of 23 Hall County teenagers participating in the state Department of Labor’s Green Corps program this summer. She’s getting paid to learn about “green” jobs and work with various environmentally focused community projects.

And she’s taking what she’s learned beyond the six-week program.

“Me and my mom talked last night about making our own garden,” Gardner said, reflecting on the herbs she would want to include. She also said some of the program’s community volunteers have encouraged her to keep up her work and perhaps one day take the course to become a master gardener.

“It makes us feel like we’ve inspired the kids to do something that’s important to us,” said Mindy Wade, the Hall County Master Gardeners’ president-elect. “It makes you feel really good to know that you’ve inspired them and that they’ll take it forth and do something on their own personal time, not something that they’re being paid for.”

Tuesday, the Green Corps teenagers joined some of the master gardeners at Gardens on Green to weed beds, plant flowers and spread mulch. They spent their morning in class and then went outside to get their hands dirty — literally.

“It shows that I can do hard work,” said Eden Valencia, a 16-year-old Gainesville resident who has come back to the program for a second year.

Program participants are “at risk” teens, said Ellie Nakamura, a Green Corps assistant. They may be from a low-income family or have a learning disability.

Whatever their circumstances, however, they’re all learning.

They’re learning job skills. They’re learning life lessons. They’re learning the value of work.

“Since we’re the department of labor, it’s important that we give them experience in a job that will help the next generation,” Nakamura said. “It’s teaching them better values and to have better values in the business world.”

Each day, the teenagers spend about four hours working and usually have lessons for another two to three hours. They’re finding out about lake ecology, and organic farming and sustainability, among other topics. Today, they’ll learn about solar energy.

For Roanne LaVere, Green Corps program coordinator, one of the most special parts of the program is getting to know the kids and seeing them grow.

Even within the span of just one week, she’s seen one participant flourish, blossoming into a self-motivated, caring contributor to the group.

“Every time I turn around, he’s there to help,” she said.

And though not every Green Corps participant will have Gardner’s immediate interest in applying the program’s skills to his or her daily life, the Green Corps staff is planting the seeds.

“These things that they’re learning might go dormant for a little while, but they’re going to be there,” LaVere said. “They’re not going to un-learn this stuff. It’s going to be in there. They’re just waiting for an opportunity to sprout and blossom and really take root.”