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The Panda’s Garden serves as outdoor classroom 

school garden

Shown are; Tom Taylor – Retired and Senior Volunteer Program. Dolores Moura – The Paso Robles Multiflora Garden Club, Chairperson of the School Gardens Committee. Rod Blackner – Paso Robles Food Services Director, Culinary Arts Academy. Valentina Espinosa – ELAC Representative, Garden Volunteer, Parent. Brad Yee – Principal of the Virginia Peterson Elementary School. Barry Peterson – Son of the late Virginia Peterson. Nancy Andrus – Steering Committee Chair, PTA Garden Coordinator, Past PTA President, Parent. Brian Cisneros – SH Teacher. And two young students.

Virginia Peterson Elementary students help restore garden

When Tom Taylor retired and moved to Atascadero from Southern California, he had no intention of cutting his work hours and has been volunteering in one capacity or another with RSVP services in San Luis Obispo County ever since. His latest project, restoring The Panda’s Garden, has Taylor working with students and volunteers at Virginia Peterson Elementary School in Paso Robles.

Being involved with RSVP, one of the largest volunteer networks in the nation for people 55 and over, Taylor learned about a need at Virginia Peterson when Principal Brad Yee asked for volunteer for the school’s reading program.

“I have a hearing aid, so I knew I couldn’t help with the reading program,” said Taylor, “but I asked Brad if there were any other needs at the school that I might be able to help with. He thought about it and said, ‘Well, we have an old garden with weeds that need to be pulled’ and that struck a chord with me. I was a General Engineering and Building Contractor in Norwalk, Long Beach and Anaheim, I received my Landscape Architecture Certificate from the University of California, Irvine.”

Taking a look back on the history of the then-overgrown garden that he was shown that fateful day, Taylor learned that in 1995 the California Education Code was changed to encourage and support, but not fund, a garden in every school. In 1998, Peterson school teacher Beth McGill spearheaded a movement to create the garden under the name of “The Country Club.” The garden was officially opened in 2002 and dedicated to Bart Ellerbroek, the Virginia Peterson principal at the time.

In 2007, the school garden was one of eight gardens featured in a North County garden tour, with nearly 500 people touring the site. In 2009, the garden was certified as an official wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation and a vermicomposting, or worm bed, program was established.

“By the end of 2009 to 2010, the garden started going downhill,” said Taylor.

Now, thanks to the help of Taylor, the school Parent Teacher Association and members of a newly-formed Steering Committee, the garden at Virginia Peterson Elementary School – now renamed The Panda’s Garden in honor of the school mascot – has undergone a complete transformation. The Steering Committee members, many of whom are teachers at the school will help with the design and implementation of a master plan for The Panda’s Garden.

At 15,000 square feet, The Panda’s Garden serves as an outdoor classroom for such subjects as horticulture, science, math, reading, writing, art, physical education, history, geography and more.

“Just today, I had 150 children with me out in the garden pulling weeds, raking and planting seeds,” Taylor said. “The kids just love it and it is such a great learning tool.”

The Panda’s Garden Steering Committee will assess the following: current student use of the garden, analyze how to improve access and use by classes and what facilities the teachers may need, oversee the maintenance and repair of the existing facilities and proceed through a design process to create a master improvement plan for future years.

“Once we get a design and budget in place, we will get started on a grant-writing campaign process,” said Taylor. “We are also working on a program of name recognition for The Panda’s Garden. We want to get our name out there and get some community recognition.”

Looking ahead, Principal Yee said that these are exciting times for the children and staff at Virginia Peterson and he hopes the garden will one day turn out to be a destination for students throughout the district.

He cited PTA Garden Coordinator Nancy Andrus’ dedication and years of service to the garden and the collaborative effort of bringing the students together to grow and eat their own fruits and vegetables in the cafeteria.

Currently, the Culinary Arts Academy on Golden Hills Road, an academic and instructional kitchen with a fully-functional dining area, serves as one of The Panda’s Gardens’ customers that pays for food grown and harvested by the Virginia Peterson students. The Culinary Arts Academy, under the direction of Rod Blackner, the Paso Robles Food Service Director, and Phillip Riccomini, the executive/head chef and academic director/instructor, facilitates a full production kitchen that produces and supplies 16 other sites throughout the Paso Robles Unified School District.

“The kids talk about how our tomatoes are on the lunch menu at the Culinary Arts Academy,” said Taylor. “We take vegetable there straight from our garden.”

To be a part of history in the making, volunteer to help restore The Panda’s Garden alongside Taylor and the many volunteers associated with this effort. Contact Maria Taylor, volunteer coordinator, at 975-7712 for more information.

– Meagan Friberg, Paso Robles Daily News

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