It’s nothing extraordinary, really, just a few beds of daisies and sunflowers, groves of pumpkins and tomatoes, and rows of snow peas, kale, carrots onions, mint, rosemary, thyme and basil to brighten the landscape, like buckets of Kool-Aid rain, poured from the sky.
The magic, though, is not in the garden but in its gardeners, virtually all of them wheelchair users: the vision-impaired boy with his entire face buried deep inside a cinnamon-color sunflower, taking in the splendor of its smell and texture; a boy with Down’s, giddily raking the soil for the very first time; the girl taking that first bite from a tomato she’d helped grow, and every one of the kids–every single one–absolutely loves shucking corn. Patricia Ogura, a special education teacher at the combined high-school and middle school in the hamlet of Hercules, about 10 miles northeast of Berkeley, California, speculates that its the rhythmic motion of the shucking, the texture of the corn stalks, and the ripping sound, which all combine to stimulate the kids’ senses and imagination.
“Oh, I remember the very happy girl playing in the planter bed, just running her fingers through the soil, and another student smiling and so happy, holding onto a small bouquet of flowers. When I saw that, and other photos captured by their teacher [Mrs. Ogura]…I just started crying ”, said Maddie Yuen, the former president of the Parent-Teacher Organization, whose daughter is a graduate of the high school.
The Hercules Sensory Garden is testament to how the five senses most of us take for granted–to see, to hear, to smell, to taste, and to touch–can help us develop, to grow, as human beings. And just as importantly, it shines a spotlight on all that is possible when even the tiniest community makes up its mind, bands together and creates.
Said Ogura: “I know it’s just a garden but when you look at how much the kids get from it and you look at the effort the entire community put into it, the Sensory Garden is really nothing short of a miracle.”
The story begins with Ogura, who was staring at a parcel of school property that was choked by weeds one day early in 2017 and wondering what she could do to help the middle school and high-school’s “medically-fragile” enrollment –mostly children with Down’s Syndrome or congenital birth defects that impairs vision, hearing, speech, motor skills or some combination of all four.
Everyone who knows her describes Ogura as a “go-getter:” so she went and got it. First she convinced school administrators to buy-in to the idea. They did, but with a caveat: Ogura would have to raise the funds.
Undeterred, Ogura approached the local Boy Scout troop for help with budgeting. They came up with a figure and with numbers firmly in hand, Ogura approached and received grants from the Buck Foundation (through Philanthropic Ventures), Hercules High School Parent Teacher Organization, Hercules Education Foundation, as well as individual donations.
She approached the school’s PTO president at the time, Yuen, who also has a reputation as a go-getter. “Yes, I probably was one of the squeakier parents,” Yuen admits rather sheepishly. “I loved the idea from the start. Every student deserves a good education, regardless of disabilities.”
Before you could say, “how green is my garden?” everyone was pitching in: The Boy Scouts, among many others, provided the muscle; tools, seeds and supplies were donated or discounted. Ogura’s son shuttled borrowed equipment back-and-forth and a team of volunteers cleared the lot, spread weed block fabric, built and filled the raised beds and spread the pathway materials. By the beginning of school last fall, everything had come together in a garden so gorgeous and blooming with life that even the city’s mayor and city councilors had to see.
The irony is that the sensory-garden is a community building exercise that is helping Hercules reinvent itself. Founded in 1881 as a company town for an explosives manufacturer, Hercules has gone from sowing the seeds of destruction, to sowing pumpkin seeds. As urban sprawl and skyrocketing home prices pushes development farther and farther out, Hercules is fast-becoming a viable bedroom community.
Adding to the sense of community-building is Hercules’ remarkable diversity. When united to work in the garden, it could look like a Benetton ad, said Yuen.
Said Ogura: “Thanks to the generosity of community businesses, the Boy Scouts of Troop #76, Dolan Lumber, American Soil, Sugar City Building Materials, Trader Joe’s, Adachi, and Annie’s Annuals (through the support of West County Developing Instructional Gardens in Schools) and many volunteers; and “seed” money from the Buck Foundation (through Philanthropic Ventures), Hercules High School Parent Teacher Organization, Hercules Education Foundation, as well as individual donations, our Sensory Garden has become a wonderful addition to the Hercules Middle/High School environment. We have witnessed the kind of positive changes that can take place when everything and everyone cooperates in the spirit of giving.
Here at the Hercules Educational Fund, we share Ogura’s appraisal. It was our pleasure to play a role–even a modest one–in the success of the sensory garden, which is a model for the kinds of investments that we envision as building blocks for a stronger and healthier community.
Find more information about the Sensory Garden and other great projects you can support at herculeseducationfoundation.org.