Note from UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) San Bernardino County Master Gardener Management:
By Elizabeth McSwain
There is something magical that happens when you enter a garden. The stress of the day goes away as you take in the beauty of a flower or plant. When my son Troy III and I visited our first community garden in 2017 it felt euphoric. UCCE San Bernardino County Master Gardener Valerie Dobesh was teaching a class on using herbs for medicinal purposes. We tasted the elderberry syrup she created, and I was hooked. Food can be medicine! After the workshop concluded I visited the info tables and that's when I met Master Gardener Program Coordinator Maggie O'Neill. I had so many questions and Maggie patiently answered many of them. I was intrigued by Maggie's professionalism, knowledge, and enthusiasm for the Master Gardener program. She inspired me to apply to the program and I am so very happy that I got accepted and that I get to interact with her throughout my gardening journey.
I didn't have a lot of gardening experience prior to becoming a UCCE San Bernardino County Master Gardener in October 2020. Our “Caramel Connections” nonprofit had a plot at a local garden and several of our volunteers facilitated organic gardening workshops. However, I did not feel knowledgeable enough to teach classes. I was part of the first Riverside Food Waste Ambassador training cohort. As part of the training, I visited my first landfill/recycling plant. After that visit, I was determined to decrease the amount of waste that my family and nonprofit would create moving forward. The UCCE Master Gardener vermicomposting training was interesting to me because it reinforced my belief that if I mastered this concept, I could help the community divert food waste from landfills.
I am excited about the opportunities ahead of us, and I cannot wait to see the garden flourish! Elizabeth McSwain showing first harvest vegetables at Seeds of Joy Community Garden Since I was a little girl, my mother Laureen instilled a joy of making food for the soul. She would make dishes that were always filled with fresh fruits and vegetables. Now alongside my husband, Troy II, our mutual passion for the culinary arts became a staple in our home as we raised our two sons, Alex and Troy III. It was in the kitchen while cooking and sharing meals together that our family bonded most - sparking unforgettable memories. Our love for food and serving the community compelled us to open Beola's Southern Cuisine in Ontario, CA.
Ultimately, we longed for families throughout the Inland Empire to experience the same joy for the culinary arts that we shared with our own family. In 2016, the McSwain's founded the Caramel Connections Foundation (CCF) to empower families throughout the Inland Empire to do just that. All CCF activities promote mental and physical wellness to help parents and their children discover the fun of healthy eating together. I began offering cooking classes and healthy beverage pairings at The San Bernardino Boys and Girls Club and Options House Transitional Homes. It was then that I quickly realized the needs of these families were much deeper.
Not only were they unaware of what healthy food options were available to them, but many of them also struggled with knowing where their next meal was coming from. I soon found that the health issues many parents and children were struggling with, such as high blood pressure and diabetes could be prevented if they knew how to make better food choices and where to access healthier options. Elizabeth
The Seeds of Joy Community Garden 1240 W. 4th Street, Ontario CA 91762, 909 697-9017, www.caramelconnections.org has conducted programs and held events to introduce Inland Empire families to a myriad of healthy activities, beverages, and meal options. CCF programs promote health, wellness, and education in the areas of physical fitness, mental wellness, literacy, organic gardening, nutrition, and combating health challenges such as
Other community service volunteer activities include:
• Abundant Living Family Church – Children's Ministry 2003-2007 • Healthy RC Steering & Compassionate Communities Committees 2015 – Present
• Caramel Connections Foundation 2016 – Present
• Black Chamber of Commerce Inland Empire
• Ontario Montclair YMCA (Board Member 2017 – 2020). The benefits of gardening stretch far beyond just the growing of food. Although growing your own food can help you eat healthier by forming the foundation of better food choices and thereby lead to a healthier lifestyle. We will be offering an extensive array of nutrition and cooking sessions here. But even deeper than that, the act of gardening offers physical activity which can lead to lower blood pressure, reduce stress, enhance mental well-being, and build self-confidence.
- Author: Debbie LeDoux
This month's Spotlight Master Gardener, Valerie Kimmel-Oliva had a personal goal to complete three UCCE programs in one year which she did (fall to spring 2017-2018). She is a UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) San Bernardino County Master Gardener, a Master Food Preserver and a UC California Naturalist! Completing all three programs helped her achieve a better understanding of global environmental issues, desert ecosystems, sustainable gardening, plant care, and growing food.
Valerie has attended and participated in the "Agriculture in the Classroom" online conferences several times (a few with our very own UCCE San Bernardino County Master Gardener Coordinator, Maggie O'Neil!) The conference mission is to raise awareness and understanding of agriculture among California's educators and students. The concepts presented at the conference are helpful to Valerie in the classroom. She also shares resources from the conferences with her fellow teachers and interns to teach their own students.
Valerie has been a Master Gardener since 2017, but her interest in sustainable gardening extends back many years before. Her interest in sustainability started with learning about recycling programs. Her efforts in teaching kids about the environment just snowballed from there. With a strong belief that kids are our docents for the future, Valerie teaches them how to garden appropriately. Because of what they have learned in Valerie's classes, some started their own home gardens.
Valerie has been involved with school-site and community gardens for about fifteen years. While teaching special needs students from the inner city of Richmond, California, she took on the task of re-establishing the school's neglected garden. She later joined the board for a city community garden as the teacher representative. While in the Bay Area, she also trained in the Watershed Program.
Valerie returned to the high desert in 2011. As a Special Education teacher in the Apple Valley Unified School District, she facilitated the school garden restoration at Desert Knolls Elementary School. Valerie and her students' hard work paid off in growing a wonderful garden of flowers, vegetables, and herbs. She believes that kids learn about science and math through their gardening experiences. Measuring a garden bed, figuring out how many plants to grow, amount of soil and water needed is required within the scope of hands-on science and math-based learning.
There are a lot of socio-economically disadvantaged children living in the desert communities where Valerie teaches. She teaches students who may not have adequate nutrition and all the other comorbid things that go with that. When a child grows something, he or she gets an incredible feeling of, I got something from basically nothing. Valerie believes that is a real moment of surprise for children (and for adults too.)
Valerie has worked hard to facilitate recycling practices at the schools she has taught. In 2016, Desert Knolls Elementary School was also selected as the School of the Year for Recycling at the annual Recycling and Recovery State Convention and won the Town of Apple Valley “Green Award” that same year. "It was quite an honor, as we have been establishing our program through sustainable practices. I learned many of the practices after attending MEEC-Mojave Environmental Consortium-sponsored workshops. Composting, energy, and gardens in every classroom, to name a few," Valerie said about receiving the award on behalf of the school and her students' hard work.
Valerie taught the district STEP program, grades 1-6, and was an advisor for the GATE after-school programs. She volunteered her time to take students on field trips to support service-learning and STEM activities. MEEC has provided transportation services funding for her to take students on field trips to organic farms and recycling recovery enters. She has taken students to the YELC-Youth Environmental Leadership Conference, the Showcase event, and the Annual Solar Oven Competition. She has had winning teams for several years in solar oven competitions.
In 2016, she was honored to be selected by the MEEC board as the MEEC-Mojave Environmental Education Consortium Teacher of the Year in recognition of her dedication and hard work in fostering environmental awareness in the classroom. Valerie said, “It was a turning point in my professional career and personal development!”
Valerie's dedication leads her to continue her students' environmental learning by virtual outreach. In her Google Classroom, she has a Garden Corner where she shares information with her students and their families about gardening activities that they can do at home. She shares California Teachers Agriculture in the Classroom Program fruits and vegetable cards with her students. She is working on indoor garden activities that she can take back to her classroom to share with her students and their families when COVID restrictions are lifted. She has an herb garden kit with lights and plans to get a hydroponics kit with Betta fish. She had started a similar project at Yucca Loma Elementary School with her K-2 class before in-class instruction temporarily ceased.
Being a Master Gardener has helped Valerie expand her gardening knowledge and interests. She loves everything about gardening from pest control to the importance of trees. One of her favorite gardening activities is experimenting with methods to grow new things in the desert. She likes to grow flowers from bulbs. For the past six years has been experimenting with different types of bulbs to see which ones grow best in the desert. The most unusual thing she has grown is Loofahs. She grew so many that she and her daughter packaged them in spa gift baskets to give to friends.
Valerie said, “The Master Gardener program is a great community to learn, network, volunteer, and share meaningful experiences with people who have common interests. The learning is ongoing, and everyone comes with different levels of expertise or strengths. It is a great way to help share what you learn and do with others in your community.”
UCCE San Bernardino County Master Gardeners are proud of Valerie Kimmel-Oliva's commitment to promoting environmental awareness and positive change within schools and communities. We celebrate her many successes and are honored to have her as a member of our community!