July 03, 2017

Helping kids grow

Give children a garden and they’ll not only learn how to grow food to nourish their bodies, they’ll learn the life-skills that will help build a promising future.

That’s the theory behind OKE, an Auckland-based charity that builds gardens for schools, and sets them up with the tools and knowledge they need to maintain and develop them.

After several months of behind-the-scenes planning, OKE’s volunteers can swoop into a school and build a garden complete with raised beds, plants and fruit trees in just one day.  But founder Paul Dickson says sustainability is an important part of OKE’s vision and wants to make sure the school has everything it needs to keep the gardens growing, long after the volunteers have left. 

So with support from the Fonterra Grass Roots Fund, OKE’s next school won’t just be presented with a garden, it will get also get a greenhouse

“That means it can save the seeds, grow seedlings and sell them to the community. That money that can go back into the garden,” says Paul. “Then we can step away financially and it can be self-sustaining.”

Paul says it is very rewarding to see how children react to an empty piece of the school grounds being turned into a vibrant garden. For many of them, it’s the first time they’ve eaten food straight from the soil. But the benefits aren’t just nutritional. 

“After we created our very first garden in a school, we realised it was providing far more than fruit and veges. There are a huge number of social and life skills that can be learnt from gardening,” he says. “When the kids learn how to garden, they learn the benefits of looking after something.”

“Kids relish the chance to get their hands dirty, and love that they get to be teachers, too. They often take home the skills they have learned at the school garden, and teach their families the benefits of planting out a patch of land.”

Each school decides how they distribute the fruit and vegetables, and often the wider school community benefits. 

OKE is one of the 300 groups in New Zealand whose community initiative receive a grant from the Fonterra Grass Roots Fund each year.

“The Fonterra Grass Roots Fund is our way of saying thank you by supporting projects and ideas that bring our communities together and make them better places to be,” says Fonterra’s Global Sponsorship Manager Kane Silcock.

The team of volunteers who support OKE is growing and hopes to see the number of gardens it builds in schools increase significantly over the next few years. The organisation takes its name from the Maori word for oak tree.

“It’s a nod to the old adage, ‘mighty oaks from little acorns grow’. We’re about growing mighty kids,” says Paul.