Ten local youths are working this month to rehabilitate the park and environmental lab and install a school garden at Mesa Elementary School.
They’re working at the school as part of a Farm Corps pilot program through the Southwest Conservation Corps. The Montezuma School to Farm Project received a $25,200 grant from the Colorado Youth Corps Association, which is put toward a stipend for the workers. At the end of the program, they’ll take an overnight backpacking trip. They also receive an AmeriCorps education in the process.
MSTFP Elementary Garden Coordinator Danyel Mezzanatto said the goal will be to “marry the two spaces” of the school garden and the environmental park.
“We’re trying to clear it out and make it more visible for the public,” she said.
The garden will include some raised beds with vegetables and perennials, an adobe oven and a she, Mezzanatto said. MSTFP also is partnering with the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project to eventually bring a heritage orchard to the space.
The area won’t just be used for garden classes and programs, she said. Students could learn about a variety of topics, such as water quality in the wetland area and native plants in the environmental park, she said. She also hopes to add some wheelchair-accessible gardening beds, she added.
The project is a resourceful one. Workers fashioned benches for the gazebo on the site from materials salvaged from the former Montezuma-Cortez High School. They also uncovered an old drip irrigation line, which Mezzanatto said they planned to use at the garden.
“We’re really trying to get the most use out of this space.”
Another goal for the project is to make it more community-inclusive, Mezzanatto said. She is hoping for more input and collaboration from the neighbors nearby going forward. Since the Mesa Park connects to the Hawkins Nature Preserve, she said she hopes more people will get involved. “We want this to be a space where people can come and enjoy the park, learn from it and take care of it,” she said.
The Farm Corps pilot program is hopefully the first of more programs to come that involve youth in southwest Colorado, said SCC regional director Kevin Heiner.
“It’s really exciting to involve this age group,” he said.
Colorado’s youth unemployment rate is 18 percent, and the pilot program seeks to address that by providing youth with summer work and wages, Heiner said.
GOCO recently started a $25 million program called the Inspire Initiative, which seeks to connect kids to the outdoors, Heiner said. Montezuma was one of 15 counties around the state to be awarded a preliminary grant through the Inspire Initiative, he said. The Montezuma Inspire Coalition (MIC) recently started as a local chapter of that campaign.
“We hope to take advantage of that and do more,” Heiner said.
Moving forward, MIC will be able to apply for $3 to $5 million to implement programs in Montezuma County, he said.
Tying environmental education with local food and sustainability learning is important, said SCC crew co-leader Jonathan Hicks. Though the crews working at Mesa weren’t doing much planting, they were laying the infrastructure for that to happen, he said.
“We’re trying to make a useful impact with environmental and sustainability education,” Hicks said. “We’re trying to find spaces where environmental health education and local food can come together. Getting young people excited about that is important.”