CONCORD -- It was a chilly Monday afternoon in November but the students at Diablo Community Day School were upbeat and full of energy.
Some were shoveling dirt while others were applying mulch to the soil of the alternative school's organic garden located behind the Willow Creek Center on Mohr Lane.
Just days after the Mt. Diablo Alternative Education Foundation honored garden educators and Pleasant Hill residents Lesley Stiles and Stephanie Jacobs with the Dick Allen Award for volunteerism, the pair showed up for the usual Monday afternoon activity working with students, from ages 11-18, tending the garden and getting it ready for winter.
When the women first arrived at the school in 2008, the back "courtyard" of the Willow Creek Center, right next to the Diablo Community Day School, was barren.
"There really was nothing in this area," said Stiles.
Five years after a retired Mt. Diablo Unified School District administrator, Margo Tobias, asked the women if they would start a garden at the school, Stiles and Jacobs still continue to teach students how to plant seasonal greens and vegetables as well as garner an appreciation for growing and eating healthy food.
So with the help of an initial grant from the Kaiser Community Benefits Grants program, the Diablo Community Day School garden was formed in 2008. The students, along with community volunteer and master gardener, Jerris Hogue, helped dig trenches and install all irrigation, Stiles said.
Now, the garden is still going strong thanks to the dedication of Stiles and Jacobs, said school Principal Linda Pete.
The students have gained knowledge about plant varieties and which plants to grow during which season. The students are very lucky to learn about gardening and healthy eating with Stiles and Jacobs's guidance, she said.
"Lesley Stiles and Stephanie Jacobs' picture should be in the dictionary next to the word volunteer," Pete said "Their passion and commitment to come back year after year is unprecedented."
"We want the students to have a varied idea of what real food tastes like," said Stiles who started a similar garden at Pleasant Hill Middle School in 2005 and another one at College Park High School a year later.
"We want to teach them healthy eating habits. They learn patience and follow-through -- that a fruit's not ready yet even though they want to pick it. They're learning life skills."
The students said they've enjoyed learning about mulch, compost, planting seeds and seeing the winter greens grow.
"You learn what's good to plant and when to plant it during a season," said a student. "We've learned how to pull out dead leaves and how to work with other students."
Stiles and Jacobs, who founded Growing Healthy Youth, a school garden education program with Slow Food Delta Diablo, have been supportive through their learning process, the students said.
A 16-year-old said he enjoyed planting radishes and lettuce and that he's learned to appreciate eating tomatoes and carrots.
"They look forward to Monday because they know there's a chance for them to come out here and work in the garden," Jacobs said.
The students also have the opportunity to cook simple dishes using vegetables from the garden, said Stiles, who's a chef and food writer. By midafternoon, the students look proudly at what they planted so far: broccoli, kale, chard, spinach, onions, radishes, cauliflower and carrots.
The women said the real honor has been seeing the look of pride in the students' faces.
"It's great to be recognized, but we didn't do this for recognition," said Jacobs. "These kids are great and it's nice to know you're part of a group that's making a difference in the school district."