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Head Start Children Embrace Gardening In Ossining

OSSINING – Cheerful four and five-year-olds pinched off lettuce leaves and dug through dirt looking for worms on Friday at the Ossining Organic Community Garden.

"The plants are really good!" said Jayden Paida, 4, who along with his classmates at the Head Start pre-school program in St. Matthew's Church has been harvesting produce from the community garden once a week for the past few weeks.

Head Start is a federally-funded early education program for three, four and five year olds that rents space at St. Matthew's United Methodist Church on North Malcolm Street in Ossining. About 15 children per week began getting their hands dirty in the Ossining community garden in 2010 after Head Start director Judy Byrne was given a plot there to do gardening.

The Head Start teachers are helped by volunteers from the Ossining Open Door Americorps program who on Friday were showing kids how to harvest lettuce, beans and escarole, and guiding them to form a line so each of 19 kids could take a turn watering their community vegetable plot.

"When we first started last year, most of them were afraid to touch the dirt and gets their hands dirty," said OOCG coordinator Donna Sharrett, a Cornell Cooperative Extension Master Gardener who teaches the Americorps volunteers and Head Start teachers about gardening so that they can teach kids. "In one year's time, they've really embraced the garden."

The children's enthusiasm was clear as they oohed and aahed at large plants and vegetables in the garden.

"Look at this big plant, it's bigger than you!" said Americorps volunteer Lori Patsey.

"Cool!" the children exclaimed.

Over at the compost pile, several children gently handled wriggly earthworms and then placed them back in the dirt where they had come from.

The garden experience ended with a group singing of "Itsy Bitsy Spider," and each child receiving a cut Echinacea flower.

"Look at this garden! Something is really magic about their little hands," said Martina Persson, the director of the Americorps Open Door Program.

Many of the Head Start children, as with Open Door children, come from immigrant families who miss being able to grow their own food as they had in their native countries, Persson said.

"They've planted seeds, weeded, watered, harvested," Persson said. "It's so fun to be able to come out and get our fingers dirty."

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