[AT YOUR SERVICE]
Volunteers nurtureIT BEGAN five years ago simply as a 20-by-20-foot plot managed by fifth-grade Wheeler Elementary School students as a science project with a few cabbage, bean and soybean plants.
297 soldiers help students
cultivate their green thumbs
AT YOUR SERVICE
By Gregg K. Kakesako
But with the help of the soldiers of the 25th Division's aviation unit, nicknamed "Blacksheep," the garden has more than tripled in size and now includes a greenhouse and rows of marigolds, eggplants, lettuce and cucumbers joining the soybeans and cabbage plants.
The 297 men and women who belong to C Company, 25th Aviation, volunteer to work at Wheeler several times a week, not only tending the garden, but also doing other projects for the school, including helping out at a Camp Erdman outing in May, cleaning and repainting basketball courts, building a rock garden and benches and replanting shrubs and hibiscus plants on campus.
Staff Sgt. Carrie Stricklin said three or four volunteers are usually at the school each day, where 90 percent of the enrollment comes from military families.
She acknowledges that many of the soldiers help out at the school because they have children attending classes from kindergarten to fifth grade.
"I do it because I like to volunteer," Stricklin added.
But Specialist Doug Harr, who is single, says he comes out "to help the school and to help the kids.
"It's relaxing and a nice change of pace," said Harr, an armament specialist for OH-58D helicopters.
The Blacksheep soldiers built the greenhouse, a tool shed and sidewalks.
The Wheeler program is part of the Army's school partnership program, which links 37 island schools with various units.
"It ranges from reading to tutoring and mentoring, to helping students with career counseling, physical fitness training, campus beautification, landscaping and telling them about the military," said Cathy Ballie, who heads the program.
Besides the gardening and Hawaiian studies program at Wheeler, Ballie said other programs include conversational Spanish classes, tutoring at Waianae High School, and culinary arts classes at Leilehua High School.
During the past two years, Ballie said, the program has grown to where all the brigades and battalions at Schofield volunteer in some capacity.
"If you were to equate the dollar value, we have spent $1 million toward this effort," she said, referring to the man-hours soldiers have devoted to the volunteer effort.
Recently, the 25th Infantry Division (Light) and U.S. Army, Hawaii received $110,000 in federal funds through the efforts of Sen. Daniel Inouye to support their local school partnership programs.
The Army received more than $55,000 for the Central Oahu school district (Wahiawa, Mililani, Helemano Military Reservation), more than $30,000 for the Leeward Coast, more than $15,000 for the North Shore (Kahuku), and more than $10,000 for the Honolulu School District (Fort Shafter).
The soldiers have spent more than 350 hours volunteering for projects such as installing storage sheds and marquees on school grounds, replacing chalkboards, seeding grass, painting classrooms and installing ceiling fans, said Capt. Stacy Bathrick, 25th Division spokeswoman.
Wheeler Principal Joe Lee credits not just the Army for developing and expanding its "natural garden," but also members of the Pan American Mokichi Okada Association Hawaii, which focuses on earth-friendly farming methods.
Roy Goshi-Otaguro, association member, explained "the drug-free garden falls along the lines of the some thing the school is promoting -- a drug-free environment."
"The whole philosophy of MOA is based on natural farming, art and culture and 'jorei,' which is the philosophy in Japan that focuses on bioenergy to relieve pain, fever and stress."
No chemicals or fertilizers are used in the Wheeler natural garden, Goshi-Otaguro added. "We concentrate on the wellness of the soil rather than the plant ... unlike today's farming methods where the emphasis is on the plants.
Yesterday, more than 200 association members from Japan toured the gardens, which both Lee and Goshi-Otaguro described as "a prototype" for what could be done in Japan.
Lee, who has been principal at Wheeler for the past 3 1/2 years, said the purpose of the garden and other planned projects is "to link the school's curriculum to hands-on activities."
In September he plans to start work on a Hawaiian garden where dry-land taro, edible ginger roots, banana and ti leaf plants will be cultivated by fourth-graders, since that grade is devoted to Hawaiian studies.
As part of the science curriculum, third-grade students will work in the greenhouse, which Lee envisions as the basis of his gardens.
"The idea is to become self-sufficient," said Lee, "with flowers and vegetables and other plants cultivated in the greenhouse."
Gregg K. Kakesako can be reached by phone at 294-4075
or by e-mail at email@example.com.