Planting Seeds, Growing Connections to Nature

Mather High School in Chicago’s West Ridge neighborhood was named in honor of Stephen Mather, a conservationist who became the first director of the National Park Service. Today, more than 50 years after its doors opened, an afterschool garden program is bringing nature to young people in a way that would make Stephen Mather proud.
“We call it ‘Greenhouse and Gardening,’” explained Matthew Myers, the biology teacher who runs the program. “We started with just one raised bed and volunteering at the Peterson Garden Project original Pop-up Victory Garden that’s not too far from school. But now we have enough beds here that we can be pretty self-sustaining with the student volunteers.”

Every Tuesday afternoon throughout the school year, students gather in the Mather greenhouse to plant tomatoes, kale, herbs and more. The food they grow will help feed hungry people around the city through the Peterson Garden Project, a non-profit organization focused on increasing food security through education, community outreach, and urban edible gardening. A majority of the seedlings that Mather students grow are sent directly to Peterson’s community gardens, and a small portion of the food they grow is donated to a local café that serves the homeless.

“The community involvement and the sense of giving back is a huge piece of our program,” Matthew said.

The program draws participants from all grades and backgrounds, as Mather is home to one of the most diverse student bodies in the city.
“Some of the kids have knowledge of gardening from parents or grandparents,” explained Alexandra Nelson, the University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener who assists with the program. “Others are dyed-in-the-wool urban kids. But no matter what their experience level, the engagement is instantaneous. You see it in a single session. As soon as the soil comes out, they’re digging in it.”

“I used to plant seeds with my mom when I was a kid,” said Zarif Nafee. “I loved doing that.  And when I came [to the U.S.], I couldn’t do that anymore.  So when I heard there was a garden club I was ready to join it immediately.”

To further advance Mather’s garden initiative, in 2016 The Nature Conservancy awarded a grant to Mather through Nature Works Everywhere, which provides schools across the country with grants to implement natural environmental solutions and create a hands-on environmental science learning spaces through school gardens.  

“For our planet to prosper in the future, we need to ensure that we’re empowering young conservationists today,” said Brigitte Griswold, Director of Youth Engagement Programs for The Nature Conservancy. “Building gardens gives students, teachers and community volunteers the opportunity to take action to address environmental issues that affect them right in their own neighborhoods.”

At Mather, the grant provides upgrades and new equipment that allows students to spend even more time in the garden than in previous years. 

“The money from the Nature Works Everywhere grant will help us create a more sustainable, efficient garden so that we can spend more time learning about what to plant and how to take care of it than just hauling water in and out of the building,” Matthew explained.

In addition to supporting the Peterson Garden Project and local communities, Mather’s garden program teaches students about where their food comes from.

“I had one student who said that he didn’t eat anything green,” Matthew recalled. “I started showing him the different herbs in the garden and, to his surprise, he recognized them. To let these kids know where their food comes from and what it looks like, that’s what really matters to me.”

In this way, Mather’s gardens are growing so much more than seeds.

“I had never gardened before, and I wanted to see what it was like,” said David Kim, a senior at Mather, of why he joined the garden program.  “I like being out in nature. There’s no rushing. It’s very peaceful.”