Professor digs into community

David Berle backs his white pick-up truck onto a grassy patch of land outside the Pinewood Branch of the Athens Regional Library. He’s not here for books. Berle has a strange delivery on this hot April Thursday afternoon – a truck bed full of compost.

 Six children storm out of the library located in the Pinewood Estates North Mobile Home Park off Highway 29. Berle, an associate professor of Horticulture, hands them work gloves and tools as they hop into the truck,  eager to help.

 Athens Land Trust’s Laura Hall has been working pro-bono to fund a community garden in the neighborhood, but the money has been slow to come-by. She’s tired of waiting and ready to plant. With Berle’s contribution of soil, tools and student volunteers, she’ll be able to set up a demonstration garden at the library, using the “community focal point,” as she calls it, to build interest in the venture. She said Berle “is the real hero here today.”

“We’re going to do this without a grant,” Berle said, as children sent shovelfuls of rich, black compost flying through the air, some of it actually making it onto the grass and not onto their clothes. Dressed in blue jeans and an aqua checked short sleeve shirt, Berle lifts cinderblocks out of the truck and begins to outline where the first bed will lie.

“That’s enough for now,” Berle shouted from beneath a wide-brimmed straw hat. His helpers have almost emptied the truck. “You’ve been great workers. Now it’s time to till.”

Berle unloaded a motorized tiller, and he gave each child a chance to chop together soil and compost in deep, gas-powered plunges.

“There’s worms in here,” one young volunteer said as his shoes pressed into the compost.

Two weeks earlier, leaning back in a downtown café chair without his straw hat to protect his face, Berle squinted as morning sunrays shot through Espresso Royale’s windows. He swirled the iced coffee around in his short paper cup, the cubes like whalebacks in a milk and coffee ocean.

 The former extension agent’s eyes become alert when he talks about the potential impact an army of service-learning students could have on Athens: “We should take a greater role in the community.”

 Berle teaches an Introduction to Horticulture class every semester. If 400 students participate in a horticulturalist-for-a-day program at 3 hours a semester, that’s 1200 volunteer hours. That’s “a lot of volunteer power.”

 Giving back to Athens is an integral part of what drives Berle toward outreach projects like Pinewood.

 “There’s this big university in this town and it seems like we should have some responsibility,” Berle said. “In some ways we are part of the problem.”

 Berle tapped university resources beyond the student body to propel the Pinewood gardens into the ground: as a horticulturalist, the tools are on-hand; the cinderblocks are leftovers from other student-built raised beds; and, as long as the project involves students and falls under the service-learning umbrella, Berle can haul off UGA compost almost whenever he wants.

 Berle drew Thursday’s student volunteers from an upper level class, Understanding and Communicating with the Latino Community in the Green Industry.

 As Spanish speakers make up a huge part of the horticulture workforce, the class helps students “build bridges across cultural gaps,” said Nemer Narchi, Berle’s teaching assistant.

 While Berle and Hall dig and sweat alongside young and old volunteers, transplanting as many flower and lettuce starts as they can before the sun sets, Berle’s students fan out through Pinewood’s winding drives, canvassing the community and gauging interest in the project.

 The students are expanding on the social skills they’ve learned in the classroom, Narchi said. They knock on trailer doors and ask: “If the gardens extend their scale, will anyone care for them?”

 ACTION, Inc.’s Gwen O’Looney wanted to come out and help build the demonstration gardens, but she said Berle asked her to wait until they’d assessed community interest. ACTION, Inc. might be able to fund further gardens. In an email, O’Looney said she and Berle know a food-related event “always draws interest and involvement whereas sustainability requires a very different type of commitment and is the test of whether there is the interest needed to make this garden be a true legacy for that community.”

 Aida Quinones, the library’s branch manager, watched the children tossing dirt about with small shovels and said she’s sure it’ll take root: “This is working already.” All the gardening action “stirred up” a sense of community, and within a few hours, six new families signed up to participate. “The kids have got their hands dirty,” she said. “Now that they’re involved in it, it’s their project.”

 The legacy O’Looney is looking for may already be up to their leaves in compost.

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