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A garden grows in Dade City, inspiring and teaching

Budget cuts cost John Balogh his job at Chester Taylor Elementary in Zephyrhills. The school had two guidance counselors and one had to go.

He didn't panic. An ordained minister, he trusted "God's plan.'' He found a similar position at one of the poorest schools in Pasco, Rodney B. Cox Elementary on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Dade City. Ninety-eight percent of its students qualify for free lunch.

Balogh anticipated dealing with problems associated with such demographics. He had no way of knowing how much the new job would enrich his life and make him a hero to students, their parents and his fellow employees.

"Mr. Greenjeans,'' they call him with respect.

Four years ago, shortly after arriving at the school, Balogh drew bus duty. Some students had to wait outside for a half hour and Balogh wanted to give them something fun to do. He had been reading about the therapeutic value of gardening and thought, "Why not plant some seeds?''

The children used their hands to scrape away earth. They planted squash, collard greens, peppers and tomatoes and got excited by the results. Balogh got excited, too.

The next school year, he got approval from his principal, Yvonne Reins, to block off a 30-by-50-foot area outside his office window at the red brick school that opened in 1927. He learned about Katie's Krops, a philanthropic organization in South Carolina dedicated to providing free food to poor people. He applied for a $400 grant and pledged to give produce to the Love One Another soup kitchen in Dade City.

Balogh purchased grow boxes, soil, tools and vegetable plants, and a white picket fence. He tended to his regular counseling duties, everything from drug prevention to anti-bullying programs and behavior intervention. But now he was hooked on broccoli and lettuce, herbs and berries. He started his own garden at home in eastern Hernando County, where he and his wife of 35 years, Valerie, have raised five of their own children. He drove into town on weekends and before school started to turn soil and water crops. He tore up an old trampoline and planted it beneath his treasures to control weeds.

By the third year, he was ready to add hydroponic towers to maximize space and conserve water. He took 30 students on a field trip to X Farms in Webster, where they picked hydroponic strawberries. When they got back to school, he treated them to strawberry shortcake.

The garden project that had begun as a way to occupy children waiting for their bus had grown to include 60 students in the "Green Thumb Club.'' Children from kindergarten through fifth grade who had witnessed the other students having so much fun applied to join. And in cases where a child had academic or behavior problems, Balogh allowed membership if they presented a plan for improvement.

"I'm here to teach them to nurture something,'' he said, "and that translates into the way they relate to everything else — family, friends, pets.''

The children make friends and learn responsibility and teamwork. They also make some money. Last year they earned $600 selling plants they had created through cuttings — geraniums, spider plants, amaryllis, four o'clocks, aloe vera and others. The proceeds went back into the Green Thumb Club and paid for a small greenhouse.

Balogh entered the school's third graders in a Bonnie Plants' cabbage growing program. "They get awards for the biggest cabbage, the gnarliest one or one with the biggest leaves,'' he explained.

Students often take home produce, especially collard greens, which seem to thrive. Much of their produce winds up at the Love One Another soup kitchen, which recently celebrated its fifth anniversary. The First Baptist Church originated the program, which benefits from several churches and businesses in the community that donate food, clothing, toiletries and other items from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. every Sunday at the Pasco Elderly Nutrition center at 13853 15th St.

Some of those who take advantage of the program have children at Cox Elementary, including some who are in the Green Thumb Club.

"Don't you know they are proud when they see their vegetables here with all the other produce and items donated?'' said Lucy Avila, who coordinates Love One Another. "It's amazing what those kids are doing. They learn about giving, not receiving. It's what life is all about, helping other people.''

Balogh, 55, is proud of his program but sees potential for so much more.

"We have a bunch of land here,'' he said, looking out to the campus. "If I had a corporate sponsor, we could do a community garden. I've seen what this has done for my kids, how much we all have learned.''

A garden grows in Dade City, inspiring and teaching 10/04/13 [Last modified: Friday, October 4, 2013 7:32pm]

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