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WESTLAKE : Seeds of Hope Take Root at a School

January 09, 1994|JAKE DOHERTY

The young gardeners of Esperanza Elementary School have found the essentials for cultivating success: an active and conscientious principal, concerned teachers and supportive parents.

"It's a melting pot of what you find in the area, including a lot of newly arrived immigrants," said Rowena Lagrosa, principal of the 880-student school at 680 Little St. The school opened in July.

Lagrosa and her staff spend a lot of time providing the kindergartners through fifth-graders with some of the social services that government agencies used to furnish before budget cuts, she said.

"In this community we see a lot of single-parent families, a high level of unemployment, limited recreational facilities and an environment inundated with drugs," Lagrosa said. "Just walking to and from school every day is an adventure. They see a lot of violence and abuse along the way."

Many of the students live in crowded single-room apartments and residential hotels. A few have been homeless for a time. "They need an oasis in their concrete jungle," Lagrosa said.

And so, under the guidance of teacher Berta Martinez and volunteer Scott Wilson, president of the North East Trees environmental group, the Garden of Hope was born in November on a plot at the northwest corner of the school.

"We mapped it all out and planned the different parts for it," said Sylvia Yoc, 10.

Wilson, a retired teacher and landscape architect, helped the students prepare their plan and visits weekly to supervise, instruct and encourage them. "The idea is to help them create an island of relative serenity," he said. "They're a great group. We're teaching them to do things themselves and that's the difference between giving someone a fish and teaching them how to catch their own fish."

The 100-by-200-foot garden will have walkways radiating from a fountain in the center. Between the walkways are plots for fruits, vegetables, flowers and trees. A greenhouse is also in the works.

One morning last week, Martinez's 31 fourth- and fifth-graders worked on a variety of tasks, including digging a trench for the irrigation pipes and laying bricks to mark the walkways.

Wielding picks and shovels nearly as tall as themselves, a crew attacked the earth, pausing occasionally to wipe away the sweat or admire their progress. Another crew mixed the mortar while others watered the lettuce, flowers, and mango and papaya trees that are the garden's first installments.

"I like digging the best," said Edgar Hernandez, 11. After Wilson praised him as one of his best helpers, Edgar smiled. "I listen and I do things right," he said.

Edgar and the other students are also quick to thank supporters, such as Ewing Irrigation Products, which donated the irrigation equipment, and the Los Angeles Alliance for a Drug Free Community, which donated $3,000 for the project. Other teachers and adults have also helped.

"Our families like what we're doing and support us even though we do get our clothes dirty sometimes," said Melissa Calito, 10. "Ms. Martinez told us that if we have more activities like this kids will stay in school. I think she's right."

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