There’s a story that Cheryl Ray likes to tell, the best example of why this retired clinical social worker in her mid-70s with two knee replacements spends 20 hours a week, year after year, at Will Rogers Elementary School.
There was a class of little ones, probably first-graders, and Ray had them out in the Will Rogers Community Garden planting green beans. It was a simple enough activity for 6-year-olds.
“The seeds are big enough for little-bitty kids to handle,” Ray says. “Green beans come up pretty quick. I mean, within four or five days, they are up.”
Ray told the class to take note of where they were standing. They would soon return to the same spot and check on the seed they planted. A few days later, Ray stood next to a young Hispanic boy. A green sprout had erupted where his seed had been. His eyes grew wide.
“Milagro!” he said. That’s Spanish for “miracle.”
“It is just a connection with all that is beautiful right here in the garden,” Ray says.
This is now going into its second decade, this garden of 22 raised beds between the wings of Will Rogers. It is a connection between Ray, a master gardener, Principal Terri Huseman and grade after grade that come through this elementary school in one of Amarillo’s most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. The connection lasts long after the vegetables they grow are gone.
“When seniors come back for Senior Walk, they all say, ‘Do you still have the garden?’” says Huseman, principal at Will Rogers for 15 years. “When I say that we do, they all say, ‘Oh, can we see it?’”
This garden grows vegetables, grows flowers and grows kids, and maybe not in that order. What started with humble beginnings in 2011 has expanded, with a unique approach that serves children and their families, teaching them in a way that a classroom often does not.
“I love it,” says Anariah Acosta, 11, a straight-A fifth-grader. “I get to use my hands. The garden is special to me. It’s not just one person doing the gardening. It’s the whole school’s garden.”
A bountiful harvest
In the early afternoon on a typically windy spring day, Ray speaks to 13 fifth-grade students. Temperatures are in the 70s and the wind gusts out of the south. The students sit on tiered benches under a metal awning. Directly above them, on the outside wall of the school, is the word “GROW.”
They are preparing soil to plant strawberries. The students fan out among the 22 raised beds. There’s no goofing off, no squealing or running. This is not recess. This is a job. This is a mission. Nearly all of the almost 500 students at Rogers take it seriously when it’s their turn.
Jood, a recent move-in from Syria, has a steel rake over his shoulder. He’s among several boys cleaning a bed and preparing soil.
“They do the work,” Ray says. “They learn the life skills. A lot of them live in apartment housing, so they’ve never held garden tools until now.”
Ray is dressed for success in a long sleeve flannel over a T-shirt. Gardening gloves are tucked into the back pocket of her jeans. She wears comfortable trail-walking shoes.
Each of the 22 raised beds boasts 32 square feet of gardening space. That’s more than 700 square feet for a variety of vegetables. “You look at it and you realize just how big it is,” Ray says. “It’s just a neat place.”
In a rare moment apart from the students, Ray sits on the front-row bench, keeping an eye on the 13 among the raised beds. In front of her on a chalkboard is a “to-do” list for the day—various grades planted strawberries and flowers, watered, built trellises, picked up trash and moved dirt.
The other half of the chalkboard lists what was planted in the days before—peas, cilantro, radishes, lettuce, spinach, onions, beets and carrots. Ray recites some of the recent bounty from the garden—110 pounds of onions, 100 cucumbers in a week, 50 to
60 heads of lettuce, 1,500 individual peppers. The list goes on and on.
Every September, Will Rogers is the Georgia football of the Tri-State Fair. They dominate. Ray and the students harvest blue ribbons like they do peppers. For five years in a row, their onions have won first place.
“The kids, they absolutely adore her,” Huseman says. “There’s never a discipline issue out there. If the kids have been in trouble, we have them do some lifting or hoeing or digging and it gets that aggression out and gets them to focus on positive things.
“It works wonders. I’ve never heard of anyone who didn’t want to go out. They absolutely love to be out in it.”
Students get to taste what they helped grow. Bags of fresh produce are sent home shortly after harvest. That’s not a gesture taken lightly.
Rogers, established in the 1940s just after World War II, is one of the oldest elementary schools in the city, located at 920 N. Mirror St. just more than two blocks north of Amarillo Boulevard.
Martin Road Softball Complex is a long home run from Rogers. Closer, just across Mirror in front of the main entrance to Rogers, is Immanuel Baptist Church. On the marquee is a notice for a food pantry, scheduled for April 22. Almost all of the nearly 500 students at Rogers—95 percent to be exact—are on free or reduced lunches.
In the summer, parents of students are invited to come to Rogers on Tuesdays and Fridays and take a supply of vegetables home. Leftovers are then bagged and offered with Snack Pak 4 Kids food bags, which are sent to “food insecure” students each Friday through Amarillo ISD and other participating school districts.
Rogers sends 392 Snack Paks home each Friday. The program started with just 10 students. “We have known for a long time that our kids struggle, especially with the pandemic, people off work and inflation,” says Huseman, a Snack Pak 4 Kids board member. “I can’t tell you how many times because of that kids fall on hard times. This is just one more way that kids learn about what they can do to help themselves. A ton of kids over the years have said they have started a garden at their house from what they have learned from Cheryl and her expertise.”
At other times of the year, students have planted summer squash, cantaloupe, green beans and tomatoes. Four of the 22 beds are the province of flowers, filled with pansies, lemon balm, and lavender, which often attract pollinators.
“I really like the flowers,” says Holly Edwards, 7, a second-grader. “They smell beautiful and look beautiful.”
It wasn’t always this way. The garden began 12 years ago when a fifth-grade science teacher asked Huseman if he could start a garden.
Sure, she said. They went to the Tri-State Fairgrounds and looked at some box gardens. With the help of some refugee families, they built their own box garden, planted some flowers and a few vegetables and …
“It was a terrible flop,” Huseman says. “Mainly because I was off for two weeks in the summer and needed to come over and water daily. We had no water source. We didn’t have a continuum of people in the summer who could help with pruning, weeding and harvesting. I was not as organized back then and didn’t know what I was doing.”
The original garden was on tilled ground behind the school. It was unprotected and underappreciated. The squash, cucumbers and tomatoes were terminal.
“It was pretty pitiful,” Huseman says. Around that time, the Rogers fifth-graders were at Outdoor Education, a mini-learning retreat at Ceta Canyon. Ray, who went to church with the Rogers physical education teacher at the time, had been recruited to teach students about nature crafts.
She got to know Rogers administration and teachers. Huseman discovered that Ray was a master gardener. Maybe she could offer some suggestions for the school garden?
Ray agreed to help. “I think she felt sorry for me,” Huseman says.
The master gardener has never left. Ray is a sort of Pied Piper among the peppers. She can reach kids like she can grow a tomato.
“She’s amazing. She just has this way about her,” Huseman says. “She is kind, loving and knowledgeable and willing to share that with anybody and everybody. If someone is having a hard day and being fidgety, she says, ‘Here, I need you to do this’ in a sweet and kind voice.
Ray balances her knowledge and expertise with a kid-friendly sweetness. “Every single kid eats out of her hand,” says Huseman.
‘500 little pairs of hands’
In the 1950s, Cheryl Ray grew up in a garden family in Amarillo. In the summer, Ray and her siblings would go to her grandparents’ home in southwest Oklahoma near Altus. There was a huge garden, a natural for rural families whose parents lived through the Depression. By age 4, Ray was shelling peas.
“Everything they had on the table came from the garden and I liked to eat,” she says. “I just enjoyed everything about it and it became a hobby.”
There was less room for flower or vegetable gardens at her home in Amarillo, but Ray’s mother was undeterred. She grew large dahlia flowers that encroached the driveway and the basketball goal, forcing Ray and her friends primarily to shoot baskets from only the left side of the driveway.
Growing flowers and vegetables became a passion. At Oklahoma State, she graduated with a double major. One was in biology where many courses were in botany. She had graduate hours in greenhouse horticulture and management.
The other major was in social work and that’s what paid the bills. Ray worked at The Pavilion mental health unit in Amarillo for 25 years until she retired.
“I have a shirt that says ‘Gardening Is Cheaper Than Therapy,’” she says, “and it is.”
Leading the Will Rogers Community Garden for 11 years seems to be a combination of those two majors of more than 50 years ago—working with plants and working with people.
From February through October, Ray hosts gardening sessions every Tuesday and Friday at Rogers for more than three hours each day. All told, she spends about 15 to 20 hours weekly at the school.
“We are just way too connected to that little plastic thing in our back pocket,” says Ray, who keeps a flip phone out of necessity in hers. “Then we miss out on what’s really beautiful in the world, because there is plenty that is not these days. A beautiful tomato that you grew yourself, it is a wonderful thing.”
Students will work for 20 to 30 minutes with Ray every other week. There’s no wasted time. There’s chores to be done no matter the age.
“I just like the fresh air and learning,” Edwards says. “If I get tired, I lay down a second and watch the sky, and then I get back to work.”
Acosta, the fifth-grader, is a six-year veteran of gardening at Will Rogers. Among the produce she has taken home to her family are strawberries, peppers, cucumbers and peas.
“Gardening takes a lot of work—I mean a lot of work,” Acosta says. “It takes proper care of what you’re growing. If you don’t water them regularly, they will die.”
Acosta is filled with kind words about the 70-something Ray. “She’s one of the sweetest people I know,” the student says. “She has so much patience. She gives us suckers sometimes. Maybe she gives it to us to keep our mouths shut.”
Huseman sees children interacting with an older generation. A number of students have grandparents living in Mexico or other regions of the world, making it difficult to see them regularly. It’s a mentoring relationship.
“She will show a bad tomato and say tomatoes get viruses like people get viruses, and is able to talk to them about why that happens in a way they understand,” Huseman says. “Some kids really excel in that kind of work. They get really excited that way when it’s hands-on and they’re digging in the dirt and find snails and worms. They may not excel in other types of learning.”
This is the 11th year of gardens at Rogers. The garden has moved three times, but it’s found a home for the past six years sheltered between a newer wing and an old one. Last year, the school’s maintenance crew—who built the raised beds—added protective fencing. “They saw how serious we were about the community garden,” Huseman says.
For Ray, this is the closest thing to legally stealing. She gets to guide a massive gardening project and invest her passion with young children. “I get more out of this than anybody else,” she says. “I’m out here twice a week doing what I really like to do. I’m an outdoor person and I have 500 little pairs of hands to help me who seem to enjoy it too. How can you not do that?”
Asked how much longer she can put in 20 hours a week, nine months a year, it’s clear Ray has never thought much beyond the next crop. She even timed her knee replacements so she wouldn’t miss the growing season. “I don’t want them to miss the miracles,” she says.
Milagros for everyone.