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St. Margaret’s and The Ecology Center Partnership Supports SJC Neighbors

St. Margaret’s connected with its longtime community partner, The Ecology Center, to support its Nourishing Neighbors program that donates weekly Farm Share Harvest Boxes containing fruits, vegetables, herbs and pantry staples to feed food-insecure families in San Juan Capistrano.
The St. Margaret’s community concluded its annual spring all-school service learning project this month, donating more than 250 household items and more than $15,000 in direct funds and proceeds from 90 Ecology Center Harvest Boxes purchased by St. Margaret’s families to support local families in San Juan Capistrano. St. Margaret’s connected with its longtime community partner, The Ecology Center, to support its Nourishing Neighbors program that donates weekly Farm Share Harvest Boxes containing fruits, vegetables, herbs and pantry staples to feed food-insecure families in San Juan Capistrano, especially hard-hit by the pandemic. The Ecology Center donates 20 percent of the organic, high-quality produce it grows on its 28-acre regenerative farm to Nourishing Neighbors.
The Ecology Center community engagement leader Colleen Culhane, who worked directly with St. Margaret’s leaders to develop the project said, “On behalf of The Ecology Center, we would like to share our gratitude with the St. Margaret's community for the success of the partnership through the spring service learning project. It was wonderful to see how all of the elements of this project came together, and sparked inspiration, generosity, and collaboration. Through direct donations and Harvest Box sales, we were able to fund 340 Nourishing Neighbors boxes, which means that 13 more families will receive a weekly box, nourishing and sustaining them for the duration of 2021. Additionally, families received generous gifts of science kits, art supplies, cooking supplies and backpacks through the school drive, bringing joy and smiles to many.

“The educational impact of this partnership was also very inspiring. Highlighting some of the core values of The Ecology Center, like Give More than You Take, and Collaborate for Change, these will likely become seeds planted that will flourish in the children as healthy ideals for years to come. The project culminated in a visit to The Ecology Center for the fifth graders, where they were able to experience the abundance of the farm, and directly contribute to the Nourishing Neighbors program, bagging rice and beans for the boxes. They bagged about two weeks worth!”

The Ecology Center’s Nourishing Neighbors program currently serves 100 local families weekly, and continues to grow toward the goal of 150 families per week by the end of 2021. “The generosity of the St. Margaret's community has helped us to get closer to our goal. Thank you,” said Ms. Culhane.

To support the effort, each St. Margaret’s school division, led by the Directors of Community Life, organized supply donation drives with division families and professional community members to support additional needs of local families identified by The Ecology Center that were then added to the Farm Share Harvest Boxes. The Early Childhood School and Lower School collected items for families with young children, including new garden discovery tools and art supplies. Middle School collected basic household kitchen and cooking tools, while the Upper School collected stationery, journals and sketchbooks for local senior citizens who are also served by the Nourishing Neighbors program. St. Margaret’s professional community also organized to donate new children’s backpacks.

St. Margaret’s service learning leaders from the four divisions also worked with faculty to develop age-appropriate educational opportunities for students of all grades about The Ecology Center’s purpose and the needs it serves within the community, including nutrition, farm-to-table models, food insecurity and pandemic-related inequities. This included hands on-experiences for Lower School and Early School students planting seedlings provided by The Ecology Center and a culminating grade 5 field trip to The Ecology Center.

In alignment with St. Margaret’s mission and Core Values, the service learning program aims to identify and support authentic needs in the region through established partnerships with local community organizations, educate students in underlining factors that contribute to societal issues and inequities, and build skills through hands-on experiences.

“We were honored to partner with The Ecology Center in support of their deeply impactful work in San Juan Capistrano and we share their commitment to supporting our neighbors,” said Assistant Head of School for Strategic Initiatives Ryan Dahlem, who leads the service learning leadership team. “We strive to create sustainable and meaningful ways for our students to connect with the local community and support authentic needs, particularly this year amidst the pandemic, just as The Ecology Center does through its programs every day.”

The Ecology Center goes well beyond providing food to families, as education and engagement are also part of its greater goal. This summer, eight Nourishing Neighbors recipients will receive full scholarships to the center’s summer camp, and three groups of middle-school aged students from the Boys & Girls Club and Unidos will be invited to the Feast Verde program - a seed-to-plate experience over four visits to The Ecology Center. Click here to read more about and continue supporting The Ecology Center and its Nourishing Neighbors program.

“Thank you to our entire Tartan community for joining in this effort to lift up and care for our neighbors, and a special thank you to our dedicated St. Margaret’s service learning team who organized and led this effort across our school,” said Mr. Dahlem. The service learning leadership team includes Director of Equity and Inclusion Victor Cota, Early Childhood School Pedagogista Diane Fletcher, Lower School Director of Community Life Tupper Spring, Middle School Director of Community Life Kylie Middlebrook, and Upper School Director of Community Life Lora Allison, who has been an instrumental leader in cultivating the strong partnership with The Ecology Center over the past decade.

To read more and view a film about St. Margaret’s 2021 All-School Service Learning Project, click here.
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