For nearly the past decade – almost half of her career – Sandy Carey has worked with students in the Westwood Heights school district as a speech and language therapist.
Born and raised in Illinois, Carey lived in northern Wisconsin before moving to Michigan when her husband was transferred to Lansing. She returned to work after her three children were born.
The McMonagle Elementary speech teacher was instrumental in bringing a hydroponics garden to the school. Getting youth involved in gardening stems from an early childhood memory of working alongside her mother and grandparents in her family’s Victory Garden.
During World War II, citizens were encouraged to raise their own food in Victory Gardens, so commercially-grown produce could be canned and shipped to the troops. Because her family’s yard was small, the family obtained extra gas ration stamps to drive to a section of farmland where they grew vegetables, enough to load up their dirt-floor cellar with jars of tomatoes and green beans.
“Grandma, Grandpa, all of us worked on it,” said Carey, whose father and uncles were veterans. “It was very much a place-based kind of a venture.”
After working in education, Carey realized “children don’t have much of a connection to the outside at all, much less a place to safely be doing some gardening.”
Thanks to the hydroponics garden – where plants are grown in water – elementary students practice academic skills while charting pH and nutrient levels. Youth fill the garden reservoir with water, pick peppers and tomatoes and learn that food origins don’t have to be a mystery. “I think they’re proud they can grow their own food,” Carey said.
Bringing hope to students is especially important in a community where Carey knows students who were victims of shootings.
Along with working on students’ speech and language skills, she spends her days encouraging youth to help others, hoping they “find some success in something they like to do at school, something that can overshadow the darkness in their lives,” Carey said.
Carey’s upbeat nature and sense of humor give children a reason to smile.
“I try to give kids cheerfulness and hope,” Carey said. “I think the garden does that too.”