University City

ProjectU raises garden, children’s character

Chances are, the students Nicole Nederlk tutored this year in the local after-school program will think back fondly of her in 2019.

That’s the year many of them will likely be filling out stacks of college applications. It’s then that they’ll see the value of the gift she gave them seven years earlier.

By the time they’re seniors, each one will have a portfolio that demonstrates the years of community service they took part in. It will all have been documented with photos, videos and reports.

“When they get into their senior year of high school, they’re going to have a whole portfolio of community service,” said Nederlk, a teacher at Nathaniel Alexander Elementary School.

“I just think, what college would not want to have one of these kids, and would not want to give them a scholarship?”

Nederlk got the idea while at her second job as an after-school teacher at the Prodigal Son’s Foundation’s Sugar Creek 21st Century Community Learning Center.

A group of eight students there around 10 and 11 years old stood out as natural leaders. Their grades were high. Their characters’ solid.

“I wanted to form a group where we could take their strengths into the community,” she said. “They have such great ideas, so we wanted to put them to work.”

They named the collaboration, ProjectU – a community service club aimed at making life better for those around them.

The first project was creating a community garden for those in need.

The students did everything. They researched which vegetables grow fastest. They surveyed people to find out which fruits and vegetables they like best. They even discovered which flowers to put around the garden to distract the insects from their crop.

“Marigolds,” said Sydnee Addison, 10. “Insects like marigolds, so we planted some so they would leave our fruits and vegetables alone.”

The group also created a proposal and spoke to managers of area apartment complexes to find a central location for their garden, but the managers weren’t as receptive as they had hoped. Akyra Foreman, 11, thinks she knows why.

“People think, just because we’re kids, we can’t make a change to the community, but we can. When people don’t believe in you, you may start to not believe in yourself.”

Ultimately, they decided the best spot would be at Derita Church, though, on West Sugar Creek Road.

They didn’t have much to fund the project. A manager at Home Depot spotted them pricing out garden beds and gave them a gift card and a few deep discounts. The Prodigal Son Foundation kicked in a few dollars, too. They had a few shovels, but no gardening tools.

“We dug with our hands, like dogs,” said Kimberly Flores, 11.

But as the deep green stretch of grass on the church grounds slowly started to transform, passersby began to help out. One advised they give their tomato plants a little more space. Another brought her tiller to help churn up the hard clay after watching the kids jump on shovels aimed at the ground without making an impression.

Now that the garden is beginning to sprout with zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and watermelon, the group is starting to brainstorm other projects to begin.

Bullying, school violence, getting kids more active, finding a way to reduce profanity. All are on the table for discussion right now.

“It’s thinking of a problem in the community that they want to solve, and then going out and doing it,” said Nederlk.

“It’s really, really important to us, this program,” said Nathaniel Gebregziabher, 10. “It can change our lives, but also the world.”