There wasn't a smart phone or computer game in sight Tuesday as more than a dozen kids pulled weeds, dug dirt and planted seedlings in a garden at Como Lake middle school.
For many, the Kateslem garden, with its tiny plants, some no bigger than a thumb, gave them their first glimpse of a vegetable in its original, unpackaged state.
"It's pretty fun," said Ben Sabetnia, 13, who joined the Kateslem after-school program three years ago, after moving to Coquitlam from Iran.
With his dirty hands, Sabetnia was clearly a hard worker and so were the other students, aged 11 to 14, from Como Lake, Sir Frederick Banting and Summit middle schools who took advantage of a rare sunny afternoon to plant.
When it's all done and the produce matures, the youth will be able to taste the fruits (and vegetables) of their labours and even donate some to families in need.
"This is the kids' way of giving back," said Karyn Bell, the Kateslem co-ordinator, who explained that the garden initiative is one of many opportunities the after-school program provides to encourage youth to help others while learning new skills.
Currently, 60 students are enrolled in the program that operates out of Como Lake middle, with funding coming from United Way, gaming funds, and donations. Some of the money is also raised by the students themselves, who will be canvassing the Banting neighbourhood for donations on May 29 during the annual Walk to Protect Kids.
"We are looking for all the help we can get for program materials and other support for the kids," said Bell, who grew the seedlings from seeds she purchased. The soil was bought with a donation from Art Knapp in Port Coquitlam and contributions from other Kateslem youth workers.
Kateslem is one of those rare programs that provides continuity as well as social and learning opportunities for vulnerable youth. It's free and has been running for more than 15 years.
Bell said it's important for kids to be social - they learn from each other and make friends. It's better than staying at home and staring at a computer or smartphone screen, isolated and alone, she said, adding: "We don't even allow [phones]. They have to turn them off while they're here."
The no-screen strategy seems to be paying off for this group. Some of the students The Tri-City News talked to agreed the garden is a good idea, not only for the activity and skills they learned but for the end result: food.
"People can come and, if they don't have money and can get food, I love it," said Nicole Denison, a Grade 9 student at Como Lake middle.
For Jason Persiani, a Banting student, the garden may convince kids who don't like veggies to try some. "I think it's good because I don't think tons of kids like vegetables.
"It gives them a sense of where the food comes from," Persiani added, "and it teaches you to take care of something."
All good lessons to learn while getting your hands dirty.
KATESLEM: WHAT IS IT?
Parents, teachers and counsellors can refer children aged 11 to 14 years to the daily after-school program at Como Lake middle school that is for students at Sir Frederick Banting, Summit and Como Lake, or students can sign up themselves. There is no registration fee but each member is required to donate one item of non-perishable food monthly.
What's offered: Homework assistance, literacy skills, life skills, health, nutrition and hygiene skills, community service and leadership, recreational and creative activities, conflict resolution and friendship development.
What's needed: Donations of gardening materials, including gloves, or financial donations so the students can attend recreational programs or go to the pool. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.