Peninsula Learns sprouts again

Gardening mentor Larkin Stenz leads a class in planting potatoes at the Peninsula Learns greenhouse at Hilltop School in Ilwaco. DAMIAN MULINIX photo

ILWACO - After receiving necessary "seed" money from local sources, Peninsula Learns has been able to grow, sprouting new programs and a greenhouse.

After surviving a near-death experience in December, the popular afterschool program was reborn thanks to donations of $15,000 from Pacific County, and $5,000 each from the cities of Ilwaco and Long Beach - giving it the necessary funds to operate through this school year.

Now that they've started back up - the program took a break starting in late-December to regroup - there have been some changes.

"I learned a lot in the fall as a new site coordinator," said Jenny Schmidt, who oversees the program, which meets daily at Hilltop School. "We reworked the schedule a little bit."

One of the new things they're trying is something called "fresh air," a kind of unwinding time between the end of the school day and the start of daily programs.

"That has worked really well," said Schmidt, "They love it. It lets them come back and concentrate more on the academic time we have."

Organizers have increased that academic time - during which they help students with homework - to 45 minutes a day. In turn, they have shortened the activity time a little, to two 45-minute sessions.

The activity sessions have some new additions as well, including classes at the River City School of Arts and Crafts. Some of the new sessions include wildlife and ceramics classes. They are also doing more field trips, including outings to Fort Columbia, the Ocean Park Fire Hall, and to the Motor Life Boat School at the Coast Guard station last week.

"It's just a good way to get the students out into the community and see what's there," said Schmidt.

The program, as since its inception, is very dependent on volunteers from the community. One of the central figures in these efforts is Larkin Stentz, who has been with Peninsula Learns from the get-go.

Stentz has been working with the students, teaching skills of gardening and horticulture. It started out with various flowers planted on the front lawn of Hilltop when it was "all grass and weeds," and has blossomed into the completion of a new 20-foot by 30-foot greenhouse.

"It's been an ongoing process, but it's finally there and done and together," said Schmidt.

"What do you want to see here?" is what Stentz asked the students when starting out on the school's front lawn. And though he had originally thought about fruits and vegetables, the kids decided they wanted flowers.

They planted tulips, daffodils and other such petaled pretties. They created a horseshoe-shaped garden and flower patches shaped like the letters "H" and "T," which stands for Hilltop.

Stentz said things started to come around for the gardening program after applying for and receiving an award from the National Youth Garden Grant Program, based on the design of their gardens. Stentz said that there were 1,300 entries and only 300 winners. The award featured $1,000 of tools and plants, that included several fruit trees.

He went on to say it has taken them the last few years to get the gardens looking as good as they do, no thanks to the tough soil.

"It's clay," laughed Stentz, "the rest of the Peninsula is sand."

And the gardens haven't only been to the benefit of Peninsula Learns students either. Stentz said one class from Hilltop planted various items the pilgrims would have planted nearly 400 years ago. He said the addition of the greenhouse will go a long way toward making it easier to do these kind of things year round.

"Now, even during the winter months, we can have things growing and they can learn about that relationship to the earth."

The greenhouse was built thanks to a lot of volunteer help. The parts that make up the frame of the building were loaned to the program by Sea Resources in Chinook.

"They had a greenhouse that was twice this long and they were only using half of it," said Stentz

He said he told them that if they ever wanted to give the unused half to Peninsula Learns, they would gladly accept. With the help of several volunteers, they were able to reconstruct the structure. He said the final touches were put on after receiving a donation that helped buy the plastic sheeting that makes up the walls.

As far as the future is concerned for Peninsula Learns, Schmidt said the advisory committee for the program has been meeting regularly and looking for grants that can sustain the program through next school year. At this time they have applied for a State Juvenile Violence Prevention grant worth a total of $66,439. With a current operating cost of $5,000 per month, the program would have more than enough to get by. However, they are in the early stages of the process, and haven't been given a final result.

Before closing down for a month, Peninsula Learns looked as though it was going to break ties with the Ocean Beach School District and become a self-sustaining non-profit organization - but that is not necessarily the case any more.

"At this moment, we're going to look for fund-raising through the school district," said Schmidt.

She said time constraints and past success with the district is what made them decide that it was best to work together.

"It is a benefit for both the kids and the school district to have a program like this," she said.

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