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Volunteers build reading garden at Tampa's DeSoto Elementary School

Volunteers at DeSoto Elementary plant a garden Saturday to create a space where students can unwind with a good book.

SHERRI ALVAREZ | Special to the Times

Volunteers at DeSoto Elementary plant a garden Saturday to create a space where students can unwind with a good book.

TAMPA — Jalissa Stanley vigorously sanded a bench as her classmates and other volunteers planted flowers, placed pavers and built a pond in a grassy courtyard at DeSoto Elementary School on Saturday.

Jalissa, a third-grader, said she looks forward to bringing books out to the new reading garden that was built in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month.

"It's cool because it will look a bit nicer," said Jalissa, 8. "Usually, we read inside."

The new pond triggered memories for Jaime Solano, 85, who watched the construction. He attended DeSoto 1930-36.

Some memories are tough, such as the ones of walking to school without shoes. During the Great Depression, his family couldn't afford them.

But others are good. As a student, he helped build a fish pond at the school. He loved that pond, and after he and his wife were married on a Sunday in 1949, one of the first things he did was build a pond in their back yard.

"There was something about that fish pond," he said.

The old pond is no longer at DeSoto. Although the school near the Port of Tampa recently underwent a $1.7 million renovation that preserved a lot of the historical architectural details, much has changed.

But when principal Gilda Garcia handed him a black-and-white photograph of teachers standing by the pond in 1937, he said it looks just like he remembered, down to the stacked rocks and the little wooden bridge.

"See," he said. "I told you about the bridge."

Solano and his wife live near Temple Terrace now, but they still visit DeSoto most weekends. He reminisced about playing in the park across the street from the school until the 8:30 p.m. Eastern Airlines plane passed overhead. That was his cue to go home.

"When that plane was late, I was in trouble," he said.

While he chatted with Sue Ann Valenti, who attended DeSoto in the 1950s, the students planted Mexican petunias and small crape myrtles. They also leveled sand for the paver walkway, where they'll be able to sit and read during the school day.

The garden project was led by writing resource teacher Sherri Alvarez, who showed up before dawn on the chilly Saturday morning to set up 16 pallets of supplies purchased with a $2,000 Home Depot grant.

The school's focus is environmental leadership, so principal Garcia said she hopes this will be the first of several gardens. Still, this one is enough to make a difference, Solano said. "Whatever you do with a little kid today, they will remember for the rest of their lives," he said.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at or (813) 661-2443.

Volunteers build reading garden at Tampa's DeSoto Elementary School 10/17/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 17, 2009 10:09pm]
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