When a teacher suggested Chardonaé Johnson be president of Garinger’s new gardening club, she was nervous and excited. “I’d never been in a leadership role,” she said.
Chardonaé talked about how she’s been a quiet student and never pictured herself as one with an official leadership title at her school.
But aside from the nerves, she was mostly excited. Bobbie Mabe, a Garinger family advocate who spends most of her time involving students with the school’s garden, can attest to that.
“She emailed me saying, ‘I just want to let you know that I want to be the president!’ ” Mabe recalled.
A Teach for America teacher began plans to revive the 2 1/2-acre garden last year. Garinger partnered with Friendship Gardens, which farms in urban areas to unite communities, inform others about growing food and serve produce to those in need. This fall, most of Garinger’s produce went to the hungry, said Henry Owen, Friendship Gardens’ program director.
Chardonaé, a senior who moved to Charlotte in her freshman year, said she grew up growing vegetables in Michigan with her grandmother, but didn’t know a lot about it.
An Advanced Placement environmental science class last year piqued her interest. Now she meets every Thursday with the club – five student members strong – about how to make progress in the garden.
In fall 2013, students harvested many vegetables, from beets to lettuce. She’s working on getting more apple trees planted, she said, because it was fun – and fruitful – picking from a tree this year.
“They were the ugliest apples, but once you peeled the skin off, they were pretty good.”
Her outlook on nutrition has changed, too. “Now I eat kale and all of this. I used to be addicted to Hot Pockets. At first I’d never eat salad, and now I like spinach.”
But Chardonaé’s involvement isn’t just about growing food. She’s taking charge with a business plan to figure out how to work with local restaurants. In recent weeks, she’s worked with a volunteer business consultant to map out a plan for selling and donating produce locally.
Mabe said she was amazed when she took Chardonaé to a festival recently to set up a booth about the garden. Chardonaé disappeared but returned a few minutes later, triumphant after talking to a woman running a smoothie business.
“ ‘She’s going to use our fruit in her smoothies,’ ” Chardonaé told Mabe.
“She’s so personable. It seems easy for her to talk to people,” Mabe said. “She’s like a salesperson.”
Chardonaé is also a top student in her class.
“She’s a teacher’s dream,” said James Ford, who taught her world history and was recently named Southwest Region Teacher of the Year by the state.
“She’s good at everything. ... She’s one of the only students I’ve ever had get 100s on tests.”
While she’s always done well in school, Chardonaé said she’s perhaps learned the most this year. Her biggest lessons so far came after problems with a biology class and her garden club involvement, she said.
She hit a snag when she struggled with AP biology, but said she motivated herself to work harder to get on track.
“I learned what it feels like to actually want something. I need to care about what I do my senior year.”
That matters because Chardonaé has her sights set on the University of Chicago. She said she’s applied to several other schools as well.
Working in the garden and learning the science behind farming also took Chardonaé by surprise.
“I’ve been learning a lot. I know it sounds corny, but I’ve learned a lot about myself, too.”
She’d always dreamed of becoming a doctor – perhaps an OB/GYN because she loves babies, a pediatrician, or something in urban medicine. But now she’s possibly interested in agriculture or the environment.
Chardonaé thought she was taking on her first leadership role at Garinger this year with the garden club, but Ford said she’s been a leader at the school all four years.
“She might not have seen it like that,” he said, “but we identified her as a class leader early on.”
Ruebens: 704-358-5294; Twitter: @lruebens
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