In Bolinas, helping kids become stewards of land and community

Teresa Mathew
Middle-school students gleaned apples at Aggie and Walter Murch's orchard last Friday, part of a new school program.  

Under last Friday’s early October sun, a handful of Bolinas schoolchildren huddled under trees in a nearby orchard, filling buckets and expectant mouths with a dozen apple varieties. Out by the Pine Gulch Creek, another group of students cleared out invasive species. One girl passed a ball of black pond earth back and forth between her hands before smearing an environmental Ash Wednesday benediction on the forehead of her classmate. 

The students were participating in the Young Stewards of the Land Program, a new afterschool program for middle-schoolers in Bolinas. The program grew out of a conversation between three mothers who saw middle-school students with a lot of energy and few productive outlets. 

“The kids just think, ‘Oh, this is a small town, there’s nothing going on’ and I don’t think they realize how much is going on,” said Veena Lucas, whose daughter Nadia was among the apple pickers last Friday. “This program is designed not only to connect them with the farms, lagoon and ocean in ways that are interesting and educational, but in ways that they can be of service to the land and the people.”

Ms. Lucas and her friends took their idea to the school’s site council, and the program’s pilot year began this fall. Tuition runs at $36 per week for each of the fall session’s 12 weeks, but the program is supported by the Bolinas-Stinson Beach School Foundation and the West Marin Fund. Most families with kids in the program receive some form of scholarship. 

Over the past six sessions, students have built a cob oven and made pizza, listened to the stories of Miwok musician Sky Road Webb and taken part in trail restoration. 

“We really wanted them to use their physical bodies,” said Meadow Evans, a member of the program’s steering committee whose son is a fourth-grader. “There are so many amazing people and resources in the community that want to connect with these kids, so we thought ‘How cool would it be to use this energy to help the community out?’” 

The Young Stewards program is led by Melinda Stone, a Bolinas resident and associate professor at the University of San Francisco. Each Friday, she brings U.S.F. students from her “Land Stewardship in the Twentieth Century” class to Bolinas to help with the sessions. By chance, there are 10 university students and 10 Bolinas kids in the program. “There’s a lot of magic that just continues to take place,” she said. 

A few weeks ago, after the week’s planned activity had fallen through, Ms. Stone learned about a property cleanup hosted by the Bolinas Community Land Trust and brought the students to help out. She said it was an example of how much the community has to offer its youth—and how much the children can offer in return. One focus of the program, Ms. Lucas said, is “how do we create something that’s not only active, but makes [the kids] feel appreciated in the community, and be seen as an asset.”

The Gospel Flat Farm Stand and Paradise Valley Ranch donate raw ingredients for the kids’ snacks, which parents take turns whipping into healthy offerings—muffins, roasted vegetables, vegetarian spring rolls—that are devoured before the start of each session. 

“We’re here for a reason, we’re learning about this—and it’ll be fun if we give it a chance,” John Glavis, a Bolinas gardener, told the apple pickers as they set out from the school’s blacktop last Friday. Mr. Glavis said he had heard from parents that the program was helping their children to enjoy school once more. 

Ms. Lucas said she had already started to see a change in some of the boys: a more approachable softness and willingness to engage. 

“Another part of this was engaging students who may have different leaning capabilities," Ms. Stone said, "reaching out to students who maybe didn’t thrive in a classroom to find a space for themselves outdoors.”

Sixth-grader Nadia Lucas-Tindall  said “it’s fun to be out in nature—to go around town and meet new people and learn the connections to food.” Before participating in the program, she said, “I didn’t know about grafting [trees] or that racoons make their own beer from melons.” 

(The raccoon-engineered alcohol was something students had learned about during a previous sessions; the nocturnal mammals punch holes in melons and let the insides ferment, before coming back days later for melon moonshine.)

While she had been on school field trips in the past, she felt they rarely allowed for the kinds of intensely hands-on experiences that Young Stewards

Ms. Stone hopes to grow the program with more grant funding that would allow her to hire another instructor and bring in younger children. “The idea is we start when they’re in third and fourth grade and then continue to open up the grade level,” she said. 

At the end of each session, students and adults alike sit in a circle on straw bales and take turns saying what they learned, and what their intentions are moving forward.  “It’s important to know what the process is like in order to overthrow the system,” a U.S.F. student said solemnly last Friday, making a connection between systems of nature and bureaucracy. Another said she wanted “to share more, like the apple trees—in a metaphorical way.”

“Wherever I go,” concluded a Bolinas student, “I want to eat more apples.”