When Marti Kohl retired from her work as a paralegal, she decided to take up gardening at the Rancho Carlsbad Community Garden in Carlsbad, California. Her plot was right next to the plots reserved for the children in the Rancho Carlsbad Garden Mentoring Program, a partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Carlsbad.

“Truth be told, when I took on a garden plot, I soon realized I didn’t know as much as I thought I did about gardening,” she says. “I thought if I volunteered to work with the kids, I could learn at the same time they did. Gardening in California is different from the short growing season of my childhood in Connecticut.”

She did learn, but it was about more than gardening. The mentoring program, which started in 2006, takes a small group of kids from the Boys & Girls Clubs and transports them by van to the community garden where they are partnered with different senior volunteers from the garden. The groups spend time working on their plots, harvesting, planting, weeding, repairing and building relationships with each other. The program received a $10,000 grant from the Carlsbad Charitable Foundation last year, focused on strengthening engagement between seniors and youth in the community.

Kohl, 70, lives in Carlsbad with her husband Russ, and she now runs the garden mentoring program, planning weekly activities and service projects, and recruiting more senior volunteers. She took some time to talk about the program, what she’s learned, and why these sorts of intergenerational relationships are important.

Q: You have an extensive background working with children, from studying early childhood development to directing and supervising child care centers, juvenile justice programs, and high school peer counseling programs. What is it about working with children that seems to have appealed to you for so long?

A: Children are like sponges, taking everything in around them and sorting through it all to form the basis for further learning and development. They need exposure to a wide range of things, experiences, and adults who are willing to answer questions and explain things in an understandable way. It is an ongoing process that is never ending and it is satisfying and heartwarming to watch youngsters grow and develop traits, interests and behaviors that will carry them through their lives. I guess I just enjoy being a part of that process.

Q: For our readers who are unfamiliar with the mentoring program, can you walk us through how it works?

A: The kids at the club can sign up for various activities and projects that interest them. Those who want to try gardening sign up and get their parents’ permission to travel in the van and come over to Rancho Carlsbad. They come to the community garden with their driver/counselor one time per week for about an hour during the school year. During the summer, the time can be a bit more flexible. Seniors are not paired with individual children, but we usually have two or three kids to one adult, and there can never be more than the maximum number of children who can safely ride in the van, which is usually about eight or nine children at a time.

When the children arrive, they usually want to take a look at what has happened in their plots during the previous week: whether seeds have sprouted, whether the green beans are big enough to pick, to survey the damage any birds, squirrels, snails or gophers have wrought. We review and repeat safety reminders and then explain what we have available for them to accomplish during their visit, and the kids volunteer for the jobs they want. We do try to switch them around at a certain point, otherwise everyone would be picking and planting all the time and no weeding or repairs would be completed.

Q: What’s the goal of the program?

A: In my mind, the program’s goals include exposing young people to older folks in a very different setting than in the typical family interactions. The children can have respectful friendships with older people and laugh, joke, and tease one another, all while learning some of the basics about gardening. They are learning that their elders can be active and strong, and hopefully, interesting. Coming to our community garden allows them time away from the clubhouse and to be out in a beautiful, semi-rural setting right in the city of Carlsbad. They also must learn patience waiting for seeds to sprout or for the corn to be ready to pick, and to handle disappointment when the colder weather kills some of the plants or when the wildlife wreak havoc.

Q: Do you participate in the mentoring? If so, what has the mentoring experience been like for you?

A: Yes, I am working alongside the kids each week, and I have learned to be more patient. I’ve also learned to give enough explanation and instruction so that the kids are able to start their work, yet give them room to make suggestions or changes to plans as they see fit. I have gained relationships with some of the kids who are now in high school, and when I see them at the club, they still talk about things they learned and what fun we had together. So, I know that the time we seniors give has a lasting impact on at least some of these youngsters.

Q: What have you noticed about the interactions between the generations, during your time with the program?

A: The relationships between the kids and the seniors usually start off a bit distantly because the kids don’t really know what to expect. Over time, they relax and realize we want them to have fun, to be safe, and to learn some things about gardening. They realize no one is going to collapse from an accidental hosing (with a water hose) and that sometimes we don’t know any more than the kids do about some things, such as whether beets will grow as well in a big pot as they do when planted in the ground. We can try both methods and learn together, as gardening can be one big experiment.

Q: In your opinion, why are these kinds of intergenerational relationships important?

A: For a lot of children these days, with working parents and extended family members often far away, we are able to give our kids our attention, our listening ears, our time just to be with them while we work together. Too many children, in my humble opinion, are getting lost in the world of electronics and soon won’t have basic conversational skills to deal with people on a face-to-face basis. No question is too silly or dumb to ask. We show these kids that we value them and their abilities to work hard and to get along with their peers and their mentors.

Q: What’s been challenging about your work with the garden mentoring program?

A: It is a weekly challenge for me to plan enough activities to keep all of the kids busy for their visit. What I think might take one half hour, they will have done in 15 minutes and they are asking “what’s next?” And it is an ongoing challenge to recruit seniors to work alongside the children each week.

Q: What’s been rewarding about this work?

A: Rewards come in various forms, but the biggest is to see the wide eyes and big grins when the kids are able to harvest their crops or learn that a bite of a fresh-picked green bean is far better than those in a can or freezer bag. There is great satisfaction in growing something that can be shared with family and friends. The kids make a lot of salsa in the summer time by growing tomatoes and jalapeños.

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