Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Painting Pumpkins and Celebrating the Harvest!

What our students said:
"I'm thankful for the fun games we have played together, and all the laughter."
"I enjoyed spending time outside, digging my hands in the soil."
"I'm thankful for the hard work we put in, and all the fresh veggies we got out of the garden."
"I think the raspberry bushes were my favorite."

     Harvest Fest, a three-day extravaganza celebrating our relationship with the land, returned for its third year.  Laraway staffer Jess McCoy spearheaded the event which was held at our Johnson campus on October 19th, 20th and 21st.
     "I think it's important for staff and students to connect with nature and our beautiful natural environment right out of the back door," McCoy said.  "It's always beneficial for students to work with their hands, and to see a sense of return in their work and process."
      Harvest Fest offered a full schedule of activities for students to engage in.  Preparing our gardens and orchard for winter rest included pruning trees and planting garlic deep in fertile soil.  We'll be repaid by tree blossoms in spring and garlic scapes for eating in summer.
     Students pressed fresh cider, gleaned from neighbors' orchards, repaying their generosity with a quart of the sweet stuff.  They even set up a "Free and donations welcomed" cider table at the top of our driveway along Route 15, giving locals and leaf peepers a chance to bring home a fresh half gallon.  
     School teams traveled to Valley Dream Farm in Cambridge where---as a community service activity---they picked and packaged 72 bunches of kale.  This proved a great way to demystify this super-healthy, sometimes underappreciated leafy green.
     "I learned that, even though I would prefer to work on a dairy farm, all farmers work very hard to be successful," one of our students said.
     Laraway offered a Harvest-themed obstacle course, cider donuts and a seasonal poem read by Greg Stefanski, our Executive Director.   Students worked with land steward staff to harvest turnips and potatoes from our gardens.  They then headed to our campus kitchen to wash, cut and cook their veggies, transforming them into healthy and hearty "fries."   
     Not to be outdone, Laraway's cafeteria staff prepared a special harvest meal featuring items from our garden.  The menu included butternut squash soup, roasted vegetable stew, homemade carrot cake and loads of veggies in the salad bar.  Throughout the growing season, kitchen staff incorporated hundreds of pounds fresh picked veggies.
     Harvest Fest truly is a chance to connect our students to the land, to the food they eat, and to the fun activities that define autumn in Vermont.


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Unexpected Gifts


     The PEZ candy dispenser, shaped like a bunny, was passed around at a recent Laraway Development Committee meeting.  Bunny in hand, participants took turns answering the question: "Reflect on a gift you received---tangible or intangible---from working with the kids at Laraway."
     "So many of our kids want to be anonymous," a case manager said.  "When kids give me their school picture, it feels really special.  It's a sign of trust.  Sometimes we work with kids who've experienced the darkest places.  I've learned from them that, even in the darkest places, you can find light.  You're still able to experience beauty and love...and recover."
     "Patience is hard to come by, but valuable.  If kids are patient and resilient, they can find what they're passionate about," a school staffer said.  The gift is in witnessing healthy transformations and growth among the children and families we serve.
     "The work I'm doing now (helping kids find jobs in the community) is a gift," another school staffer said.  I'm able to work with kids at a point at which they're ready to give back to their community."
     The bunny, too, was a parting gift from a Laraway youth transitioning to independence.  There was no candy inside---this did not detract from the sweetness of the gesture from a young person walking a road toward healing and independence.


Thursday, October 8, 2015

Americorps at Laraway!

Our new AmeriCorps VISTA Ginny Cooke at work in the fields!

This article was originally written for the Vermont Youth of Tomorrow (VYT) AmeriCorps newsletter:

  My name is Ginny Cooke and I am serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA at Laraway Youth and Family Services. Laraway is located in rural Johnson, VT and is a non-profit dedicated to serving youth and families in the state through strengths-based approaches and therapeutic methods. Laraway offers a special education K-12 school, a residential foster care program, and an after-school program. The Laraway offices and school are located on 39 acres of formerly agricultural land. One goal of the organization is to use the land as a tool for healing and personal development for the youth in their programs. My position as a VISTA is to help develop programs that connect youth to the land and maintain the ½ acre onsite farm.
   Upon graduating from Clark University in Worcester, MA two years ago with a degree in Environmental Studies, I had a yearning to travel and discover new horizons (aka head west!). I had fallen in love with farming during my college years volunteering on urban farms and decided to continue learning more about growing plants through farm work trades. I ended up in the mountains of Northern California, the Hawaiian island of Kauai, and an old mining town turned adventure destination in the bush of Alaska, planting seeds and harvesting veggies all the while. After two years of feeding my wanderlust, I felt compelled to get back into non-profit work, another love I had found in college organizing a campaign with Real Food Challenge. I had heard about the Ameriorps program from friends and family who participated and decided to look into some of the position descriptions. Lo and behold, a position that combined my desire to return to the non-profit world and my love of gardening appeared and I found myself in the Green Mountains of Vermont.
    One of the reasons I am so interested in growing food is that I see it a very empowering and healing activity. There is a lot of disconnect between people and the food we consume in our modern society. Through my year of service at Laraway, I hope to help the youth in our programs gain a sense of connection to their food and feel competent growing their own gardens. With food insecurity and physical as well as mental health being so closely tied to issues of poverty, I see my position as a bridge for youth to access healthy foods and recreation that hopefully they can carry on into adulthood.


AmeriCorps engages more than 75,000 Americans in intensive service each year at nonprofits, schools, public agencies, and community and faith-based groups across the country. Learn more at