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Malcolm X School Gardener Wins National Service Award

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday May 29, 2007

In many ways, Rivka Mason is like any other elementary school gardener who likes to teach students how to grow a green thumb. 

She assigns children at Malcolm X Elementary School to water the flower beds, explains the ABCs of the food chain to them and lets them chase butterflies. 

But Mason, with her passion for community service, also goes a step further. Thirteen years at Malcolm X coupled with efforts to make Berkeley greener recently earned her the 2007 American Institute For Public Service Jefferson Award.  

Initiated by Jackie Onassis, the award acknowledges people who do good work in the community. 

“It all started in 1992, when I volunteered at the LeConte Elementary School garden,” Mason told the Planet Wednesday while explaining the life cycle of a lady bug to enthusiastic fifth graders in the Malcolm X garden. 

“That led to a position at Malcolm X. At first I got $7 per hour from the PTA, but a couple of years later a grant from the California Nutrition Network came in. I was just at the right place at the right time and the funds helped me to start a Garden Based Nutrition Program. 

Mason, who describes herself as a “country girl,” grew up in the hills around Mendocino where she learned skills such as gardening and carpentry during home study. 

“When I came down to the Bay Area in 1985, I looked around and saw all these lawns,” she recalled. “I wanted to see food growing everywhere. I put my carpentry and gardening skills together and raised beds in people’s backyards. Then one day this 4-year-old boy came to me and said he wanted to help. That set off a light bulb and all I wanted to do was to teach young people how to garden.” 

Dressed in a straw hat and overalls, Mason takes her students for a ride around the world everyday. 

“A lot of kids learn for the first time that purple potatoes are from South America and that carrots originated from Afghanistan,” she says, handing out sweet-peas as treats. “They learn about math, culture, arts, writing and geography in the garden. We were cooking fava beans the other day for an entire minute and the kindergartners were told to count till sixty. That itself is a learning experience for them.” 

Over the years Mason has transformed 4,000 square feet of earth into a green patch which boasts a cob green house, a chamomile lawn, a wildflower garden, a sweetpea wall, an octagonal pizza garden, a compost heap, an apple tree and a pumpkin patch. 

The highlight of Mason’s curriculum is the Pumpkin Fundraiser which takes place just before Halloween every year. 

“Local organic farmers donate pumpkins to the school,” she said. “We then hold a pumpkin giveaway sale where kids and parents are charged anything between $3 to $5 for a pumpkin. Some of the kids just give me nickels at times and those who don’t have any money walk away with a free pumpkin.” 

Spring ushers in planting season. Kids get to get their hands dirty from sowing carrots, radishes, beans, strawberries and lettuce. Under Mason’s watchful eyes, they even hold a celebration on Cesar Chavez Day, taking strawberry seedlings home to sell to neighbors. On some days, classes cook up potato salads, apple juice and learn to grind wheat. 

“Right now they are planting corn,” she said. “When the new kids will come back in September and eat the fresh sweet corn, they will get hooked to the garden immediately. It’s important for kids not to lose touch with nature. That said, the award committee might have picked me this time, but there are garden teachers all over who want to start gardens in their schools. So it’s not just Rivka and it’s not just Berkeley. Letting children find out where their food comes from is a huge movement by itself.”