Teacher Nathan Strange (right) shows kindergartener Andrea Welmaker and sixth-grader Alaina Welmaker around one of the gardens at The Main Street Academy in College Park. CONTRIBUTED BY PHIL SKINNER
Photo: Phil Skinner
Photo: Phil Skinner

Students and garden grow with volunteer’s help

Andrea Welmaker was barely 4 when she started playing in the “learning garden” at The Main Street Academy in College Park.

“She has enjoyed touching, smelling and tasting the vegetables and even climbed into one of the planters and covered herself in dirt her first time volunteering,” her mother, Alicia Robertson, said.

The garden, a popular feature at this 10-year-old Fulton County public charter school, is overseen primarily by community volunteer Nathan Strange.

Parents credit Strange with transforming the garden into a unique educational experience for their children, as well as a source of spices and other fresh food for their school’s cafeteria.

“Nathan is inspiring to me and a lot of people on the Southside because of her – literally — grass-roots involvement in the community,” said Noel Mayeske, a parent and one of the school’s founders. “She’s made a big difference at our school, getting kids out of the classroom to get their hands in the dirt and learn about where food comes from.”

Parents and staff say Strange is at the school every morning and evening during the week, overseeing the ever-expanding garden that plays to her passion for nature and beauty.

Her father was a marine biologist, and her mother was a gardener. She grew up fishing and exploring and first tried urban farming — not unlike what she and the students do — when she lived in a tiny apartment in California while her husband attended graduate school.

Several years ago, Strange launched the nonprofit P.A.T.C.H. (Progressive Action for Transforming City Habitat) in East Point. The group built a community fire pit and installed several garden beds and 30 blueberry bushes in one neighborhood, Meadowlark Estates. Working with Keep East Point Beautiful and the Colonial Hills Neighborhood Association, the group hired an arborist who installed 40 fruit trees near the East Point Historical Society

Strange also has volunteered with her community’s Main Street Association and regularly cleans up the bus stop near her home.

“I have a ‘just do it’ attitude toward life,” Strange said. “There is so much that can be done if we would just get together.”

Under Strange’s guidance, The Main Street Academy started in August 2016 with 21 beds, consisting primarily of herbs, flowers and some veggies, said Tracie Greene, the academy’s before/after school director.

In 2017, the garden grew to include an additional eight beds for berries. The following year, a pollinating flower garden was added with five raised beds. And this year, the garden expanded further to include an indoor seed-growing station so the academy could grow its own plants, Greene said.

Marlon Tempro, the academy’s director of curriculum, said no one expected the garden “was going to take off” as it did.

“But then the kids started seeing they were able to plant stuff and eat it. They had a tangible product,” Tempro said. “Some kids were so inspired that they went home and planted some stuff on their own, which was really, really cool.”

For some students, the garden provides a rare chance to see farming in an urban setting, said Cheryl Parker, TSMA’s principal. It also helps students recognize that “what we eat just doesn’t fall out of the sky,” she said.

About 40 students work in the garden each year, either during the day as part of one of the school’s enrichment classes or in the after-school program, Greene said.

Each of the 30-plus enrichment programs is designed to promote engagement, enthusiasm, and enjoyment, Tempro said.

“Nathan embodies all three of those with her dedication, passion and fun side,” he said.

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