No categories

Beets to Ballots

For Ylenia Aguilar Velderrain, a former undergraduate intern in the Community and School Garden Program at the University of Arizona, gardening activated civic engagement.

October 18, 2016


Ylenia Velderrain, photograph by Alonso Parra


Small hands reach down into the dirt, freeing round red radish roots. At Manzo Elementary School, classrooms overlook fruit trees, vegetable gardens, a chicken coop, a greenhouse, and tidy compost bins. Kneeling with the preschool class, Ylenia Velderrain, a University of Arizona intern and mother at Manzo, guides the young gardeners in Spanish and English as they harvest today’s meal. Her presence and rapport with the students helps them keep focused as they prepare a salad from garden to table.

One day after school in the spring of 2013, outside the entrance to Manzo, Ylenia hands out flyers she printed at home, informing parents about the school’s potential closure. Her smile is stretched wide across her face but her coffee brown eyes show a hint of worry. Two years later, as a board member of the Osborn Education Foundation Board in Phoenix, Ylenia sits at a long wooden table, speaking thoughtfully about what grants they should approve, reaching into her purse to pull out a new print-out she prepared for the occasion. As the only Latina and under 40-year-old board member, she champions the needs of students.

Ylenia interned at Manzo through the University of Arizona’s Community and School Garden Program (CSGP). Each semester, the program connects more than 50 undergraduate and graduate students with community and public school gardens in Tucson. Since the program’s inception in 2009, more than 700 interns have devoted an average 400 weekly hours to support these gardens. Many hands have held pitchforks, lifted hay, and turned school cafeteria into compost across Tucson.

Over the last seven years, the CSGP program has grown alongside Tucson Unified School District’s school gardens. Teachers, principals, and parents devote extra time and energy to maintain these garden spaces, but their upkeep can be tiring and demanding. While outdoor, hands-on learning is rewarding for students, education outside the classroom requires energy and skill. CSGP interns support garden maintenance, develop new curriculum, and educate student groups outside. In return, they are mentored by educators. These experiences are formative for UA students, particularly in becoming more engaged community members, as Ylenia exemplifies.

“As children and human beings, we all want to be loved, and nurtured. Through the garden program I learned that was the true meaning of life,” she said. “And just to be able to be there for those kids in that way where they could open up was very healing for me.” In the red chicken coop, children recall the chickens their Nana and Tata cared for in small Sonoran pueblos. Ylenia leans down, her red nails contrasting the flapping white chicken in her hands, discussing this sense of belonging with the children first in Spanish, then in English.

Participating in the movement to stop the closure of Manzo and other Tucson schools was a formative political moment for Ylenia. She described how she learned the power of organization as a parent in response to the threat of Manzo school closure (among the 14 schools listed for closure in 2012). They attended school board meetings, and Ylenia took a leadership role, securing a letter from Congressman Grijalva in support of Manzo remaining open. She explained how much she learned through this: “Parents who didn’t even have an education, who didn’t have a vehicle, and who have no legal status, just seeing how much they cared because they felt like they belonged, and that is the purpose of that garden, to build community. And when you build community, you are building the future.”

While living in Tucson, Ylenia chose to place her sons at Manzo because of the garden program, and because their grandmother attended Manzo. After majoring in Latin American Studies at the UA, she and her sons moved to Phoenix. Today, she works as a freelance interpreter, representing illegal reentries at federal, privately operated prisons in Florence, Arizona, among other contracts. “I get to continue to serve my community and give a voice to people like myself, people like my family, the undocumented people, the Latino people …  I’m really grateful to get to do something that I’m passionate about. Because I felt like this is my calling, this is what I do best, which is represent those people who don’t have a voice in the community, the underrepresented.”

Ylenia advocates tirelessly for school gardens in her district. After founding and cultivating the school garden program at bilingual Encantó Elementary School in Phoenix, Ylenia’s leadership in growing gardens led to her being invited to serve on the Legacy Foundation Chris Town YMCA Advisory Board, Osborn Education Foundation, Montecito Advisory Council, and Clarendon Site Council. Today, she is a candidate for school board member of the Osborn School District Governing Board. “It all started with the garden,” she said.

Direct links connect Ylenia’s internship to present, such as the aquaponics system and curriculum she’s trying to build in Phoenix schools. Yet Ylenia’s story tells us more about the role of gardens in schools, and in communities.

“The garden is a perfect place to be in any school,” she said. “Getting to build those relationships with the students, the parents, and the teachers, that is the most important relationship you’ll ever build. That is the best advice I can give, in order to build community: it all starts with the kids.”

Internship experiences, like Ylenia’s, can have cascading effects. “Not only am I building community, but I’m also building my future and the future of my children and other children,” she said. “I will be voting for the first time in November. I became a citizen in 2014 so this will be my first presidential election voting for a woman, voting for the first time, and voting for myself.”

Sarah Kelly-Richards is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Geography and Development at the University of Arizona. For three years, Sarah worked as a field coordinator and then as an instructor for the Community and School Garden Program. During this time, she was inspired by the over 200 students she mentored in the course, including Ylenia. Sarah lives in southern Chile conducting dissertation research on hydropower development, indigenous rights, and water security.

Thanks to the support of the Carson Scholars Program, coordinated by the Institute of Environment at the University of Arizona.

Header image by Liora K featured in “Farm Report: March/April 2016,”  from our March and April 2016 issue


Previous Post

UA Food Day 2016

Next Post

Flowing Gems: Sonoran Institute Presents Their Work