The garden teaches students about nutrition, stewardship of the earth, collaboration of neighbors and more.

Leiser is an occupational therapist at the Sierra School of San Diego, which focuses on special education and is located in San Carlos. She lives in North Park.

I distinctly remember the first time I stepped foot into the San Carlos Community Garden. It was a hot San Diego summer day four years ago and I was touring the campus as an occupational therapy student for my level two fieldwork rotation. I was ecstatic being able to implement outdoor therapy for my students in a school-based setting. This provided a rare and unique opportunity for the students; I knew instantly that the beautiful garden would be a special place for meaningful, motivational and engaging occupational therapy sessions.

Since graduating in 2018, I’ve worked as an occupational therapist at the Sierra School of San Diego and part of my role is ensuring our students spend time outside of the classroom, including field trips into the community, and in the garden. My career is dedicated to designing and implementing treatment plans that promote and improve cognitive, social interaction and motor skills for children and adolescents who have historically had difficulties achieving success in general education settings. In the classroom and in the garden, I’m thankful and delighted I get to witness our amazing students gain independence and achieve success.

The San Carlos Community Garden is a sustainable community garden that operates in partnership with Sierra School of San Diego, where we provide special education services to students who require additional educational and behavioral supports. Through the partnership, I get to take learning outdoors for our students. They get to be hands-on in the garden, tending to beds, composting and harvesting crops. Lessons in horticulture transition to life skills learning when vegetables and spices become delicious ingredients to use during occupational therapy session cooking groups. Additionally, as part of our school’s WorkAbility transition program, some older students gain firsthand work experience in the garden. The community garden is therapeutic in many ways for Sierra students, including activities designed to enhance job skills. For example, the garden activities address sequencing skills, motor planning skills, problem-solving, attention to task and task completion, which are areas that are difficult for a lot of our students.

Not only does the San Carlos Community Garden amplify the beauty of our campus, it offers a wealth of learning opportunities for our students. This month, we celebrated the 10th anniversary of the garden. Established in 2012 with a grant funded by the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency, it provides a safe and beautiful space for community members to grow their own healthy and organic food and flowers. In the 10 years since, the garden has positively impacted hundreds of Sierra School students — from the calm and quiet respite it offers to lessons in science, cooperation and sensory experiences.

Over time, we see firsthand the reward of each student’s labor. The garden shows that with consistency, dedication and patience, you can see progress and results in what you grow. Students can take a break in the garden if they feel upset, anxious or overstimulated. The garden also provides sensory exploration by working in the dirt and water for tactile sensory input, pushing the heavy wheelbarrow to sense movement, and smelling and tasting fruits and vegetables the students have never tried. The opportunities for therapeutic intervention in the garden are infinite.

I have personally learned more about gardening since joining the Sierra staff and relished having a community garden on campus. I have come to understand more about the whole process of managing and growing a thriving garden. I have also learned patience and how much our students benefit and thrive by being outside in nature working with their hands.

Watching students in the garden makes me feel excited and proud that they are motivated and engaged in learning. It’s rewarding seeing them work independently. When students are so eager about an activity — a job in the garden or a hands-on science lesson in the garden — it shows that they are satisfied and taking ownership of their successes. I love seeing students excited about learning.

Working together with volunteers, Sierra students help fulfill the community garden’s mission of promoting gardening for nutrition and beauty, knowledge for healthy living and stewardship of the earth, collaboration of neighbors and schools, and spirit through inspiration and healing. I enjoy that our students have a thriving garden to access throughout the academic school day that affords different opportunities for learning, sensory exploration opportunities and sensory breaks.

Working as an occupational therapist requires many of the same skills a gardener needs to succeed, including patience and perseverance. The entire Sierra School of San Diego community is blessed to have the garden as a space for nurturing our students and watching them grow.