CONTRA COSTA TIMES
By Jennifer Shaw
They dig a three-foot by two-foot hole in some soil, augmented with manure and compost. A fruit tree is adjusted into its new home, as first-graders name the sapling Isabella Pom Pom Roly Poly.
She is among two dozen trees planted by the traveling band of Common Vision volunteers who venture up and down the state in their vegetable oil-fueled, habitable bus, bringing a day of fun and fresh fruit awareness to students at predominantly low-income schools in California.
"We want to give (students) a legacy of health, not diabetes and heart disease," says Christina Boman, principal at El Monte Elementary School.
Students, with soil-caked fingers, listen attentively as one volunteer explains that "each leaf is like a solar panel ... a tree is like a giant battery," and worm poop provides a wealth of nutrients for tree roots, offering the students an easily grasped lesson in the reciprocal process of photosynthesis.
They matter-of-factly recite that sun, water, soil and roly-pollies are part of the life-giving mix.
It is the cycle of life at the Concord school, as creepy crawlers can become food for the resident chickens.
"We love this tree. We don't want it to die," says first-grader Reno Sherene.
Isabella Pom Pom Roly Poly's bare roots get a dusting of potassium-rich rhizomycelium before she's covered with dirt. Her roots will soon offer the fungus sugar in return.
"It's kind of like being a friend of a friend. It's all connected," says Common Visions' volunteer T.J. Lee, while facilitating a cluster of third-grade artists, who select brushes from an organic crushed tomato can and create a colorful wooden sign that will identify the Frost Owari mandarin fruit tree that's just been planted.
Lee asks the students to name their favorite fruit. For Bella Peck, 8 1/2, it was grapes.
They are well-versed in their root vegetables, and Bella, who also savors helping her grandma pick green beans, already knows that peanuts are subterranean.
"Let's all take a breath together," Lee says. "We're staying alive because of this symbiotic relationship."
While finishing planting a Coffee Cake Persimmon, Diana Raiselis says it was the combination of arts education and hands-on natural science, along with escaping the frigid cold Chicago weather, which inspired her to sign up with Common Vision.
"It's kinesthetic learning ... to be able to dig your hands in the dirt. It's a very sensory experience," she says.
The tree saplings, estimated to be fruit-bearing in a few years, join a plethora of ready-to-pick produce in raised beds, such as globe-sized broccoli heads and Swiss chard, which are located in front of the school where community members can come harvest and where children have learned that "bees aren't scary or that worms aren't gross," says Jen Molino, the instructional program specialist at El Monte, who reached out to Common Vision last fall.
Elsewhere on campus, Common Vision volunteer Travis Knapp dumps a fresh batch of rabbit manure -- mixed with chaff from coffee beans to make it more porous -- into an hole dug for an Emerald Beauty Plum.
"Trust me, you do not want to be standing in the way the wind is blowing," says fifth-grader Sergio Martinez, who is part of the school's Green Team, which was helping the younger students with tree planting, and monitoring the compost-creating process of recycling food waste in the cafeteria.
"There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pieces of trash that are thrown out, when it can be composted. We're trying to inspire friends, family, any relationship we have," says Sergio, who has done his fair share of pulling weeds that he describes as "really strong and spread like crazy."
El Monte youth are taught that "unless (they) get involved in taking care of the planet, no one else will," Molino explains.
Their recent planting experience fell on Dr. Seuss' birthday, so students also had a diet of all things "The Lorax."
And, as they learn that the main character rails against the decimation of Truffula trees -- and the critters that thrive in their midst -- the young readers respond to Lorax' plea: "Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care. Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air."