A gardening project seeks to tap and nurture schoolchildren into caring and responsible team-players.
MOTHER Teresa (1910-1997) once said, “Give till it hurts”. People who are used to community service would be familiar with this, fully understanding how much it takes to give one’s time and energy to a cause.
Most volunteers, however, choose not to focus on the challenges, glossing over community service as altruistic acts that are noble, even glamourous.
Behind the happy satisfied faces seen on photographs are hours of forgone sleep, time with loved ones, work and social life.
Some volunteers do not even serve voluntarily, but are pre-sent at community events to fulfil the hours for school or work projects.
For most people, donating money is often easier than volunteering precious time.
This is where Mother Teresa’s words ring true. For most, donating money to keep fundraisers happy is the least painful or troublesome option, compared to providing one’s time and services generously.
Despite that, volunteerism continues to thrive, albeit in small pockets. As American scientist Margaret Mead (1901-1978) had said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” These are the very people who are making a difference in their own little ways.
The way forward is to inculcate the spirit of service among the young, so that they are familiar with the concept of service over self.
Teaching children about community service also equips them with the necessary skill sets that would help in driving change in the future.
The rise of community gardens in urban areas reflects an increased awareness for the need to address the growing disconnect among populations of developing nations.
In developed countries such as Canada, the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, community gardening is an effective means of bringing people together over the planting of food and flowering plants.
Edible gardens not only provide a continuous supply of fresh, nutritious produce but also promote physical activity, health consciousness and social skills.
Gardening together provides a platform for social interaction, community education and neighbourhood bonding.
It also provides an outlet for stress and anger management, which is essential in today’s fast-paced living environment.
A study by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Philadelphia LandCare Programme published in 2011 found that the greening of 4,500 vacant plots over a nine-year period led to reductions in vandalism and crime rates.
The results were reinforced by another study the following year by the University of Pennsylvania which showed that residential areas that are lushly planted made people feel safer and less stressed.
Safety aside, the SetiaCaring School Programme initiated by SP Setia Foundation had a different goal in mind when they adopted three under-performing schools in the Klang district for their community garden project.
Apart from encouraging children to dedicate time for social work, the on-going initiative also aims at developing unity among students across diverse races and religions.
Gardening was chosen as one of the core activities as it encompasses three of the programme’s six key focus areas of nature, environment and society.
The other three areas are on school, friends and family.
Not only that, getting people to go out in the sun and get their hands dirty can help people put things in the right perspective, improving mental and emotional resilience. This is especially important among the younger generation, who will one day be the movers and shakers of the country.
True to the spirit of muhibbah, the Setia Caring School Programme chose national school SK Meru Jalan Tap, Chinese school SJK(C) Lee Min and Tamil school SJK (T) LadangVallambrosa for the pilot project.Launched some months ago the programme has conducted several activities, some individually and some combining all three schools.
One of the highlights of the programme would be the Setia Hibiscus Garden in each school. Hibiscus was chosen as a symbol of unity, since it is Malaysia’s national flower.
Instead of purchasing seedlings and planting them, the team decided to go a step further by teaching the Setia volunteers and students how to prepare seedlings from cuttings.
The process of preparing soil mixes, choosing healthy cuttings, making the right cut, planting the cutting and ensuring it thrives makes the entire project more holistic, adding elements of education among all involved.
Ultimately, the project serves to open avenues of discussion and help people know they have more in common than they realise.
For instance, certain plants or flowers have medicinal uses or evoke nostalgia in some people, while others simply delight in the burst of colours or fragrances, or enjoy using them in their cooking.
Apart from the students, the Setia Caring School Programme has also taught the Setia volunteers many important lessons along the way.
These include the fact that some hibiscus flowers are edible and are used by certain communities to enhance their salad dish, and that roselle belongs to the hibiscus family. That’s the beauty of volunteerism – the more you give, the more you get, in return.
Making it matter
Ultimately, volunteerism activities are not meant as one-off initiatives that are a flash in the pan. Children who have been exposed to community service at a young age are more inclined to continue practising in their adult years. They are also more emphatic, loving and caring.
The challenge now would be to mould more children and youngsters into community leaders who will breathe new life into volunteerism in the future.
One of the ways to do this is to create leadership opportunities for them in their own little worlds.
As an ancient Chinese proverb goes – It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness – volunteerism goes beyond altruism.
It is rising to the challenge and taking charge of a problem, whether social, medical, economic, environmental or others.
What better time to start than now especially with schoolchildren.
Chan Li Jin, a writer and editor specialising in health and wellness, is the founder of SUBUR Community Gardens and a Permaculture-certified practitioner who defines gardening as a full-body exercise for the mind, body and soul.