See How They Grow
By Mary Hardbarger
To a group of young gardeners, the word “weeds” never sounded so exciting.
Eager arms flew up one afternoon this spring as a guest of Belle Heth Elementary School’s Garden Club questioned students about the pesky plants.
“They grow all over the place,” a student answered.
“You have to dig them up,” another said.
Since Fall 2020, about 30 third- through sixth-graders in the Radford City Public School System (RCPS) have been growing green thumbs. Other classmates are enjoying the outdoors just as much through a Walking Club and a Biking Club.
Their enthusiasm for Mother Nature is just one of many exciting outcomes of Project GROW, a program that is very close to the hearts of two Radford University professors.
Professor of Psychology Sarah Hastings, Ph.D., and Professor of Counselor Education Nadine Hartig, Ph.D., first met 15 years ago during Radford University’s new faculty orientation. Their families joined them.
“I remember thinking how well-behaved Sarah’s kids were,” said Hartig, laughing as she recalled her own children not acting quite as tame.
Both Hastings and Hartig have enjoyed raising their now-grown children in the City of Radford. They become emotional as they reflect on the care their sons and daughters received as they grew into young adults.
“I truly feel such a sense of appreciation to the school system for giving my kids such a positive experience,” Hastings said. “Both of them, I feel, have been so nurtured.”
Their gratitude grew this past year as they watched their community continue to work through the challenges presented by the COVID-19 global health pandemic.
“I can’t imagine going through this in another place,” Hartig said.
Housed in different colleges — Hastings in the College of Humanities and Behavioral Sciences and Hartig in the College of Education and Human Development — the pair share a deep passion for using their skill sets to help others.
In Fall 2019, an opportunity arose that would allow them to give back as both mothers and educators to the school system and the community that has helped them and their families thrive.
The professors applied for a three-year grant through The Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth to support Project GROW, a program designed to build a sustainable culture of health in the Radford community. They were awarded the grant in late Spring 2020, and the program officially launched later that fall.
The $90,000 grant is funding supplies, guest speakers and other resources to educate children and their families about the importance of physical and mental well-being, a topic of great importance to Hastings and Hartig, who are both mental health professionals.
“One thing that is really exciting for us about this project is that we know that mental health outcomes are directly impacted by health incomes,” Hartig said. “Healthy kids lead to healthy adults. Healthy families lead to healthy kids, which lead to healthy communities.”
Fifth-grade teacher Jenny Zienius ’00 and Title I reading specialist Stacy Schwenk Page ’98 are seeing firsthand the positive impacts of Project GROW.
The Belle Heth educators lead the Garden Club, which is funded through the grant. They have been inspired by their students’ interest in the very hands-on subject.
“They are blossoming right in front of us,” Zienius said.
This spring, the students have painted planters filled with peppers, cilantro and onions — a perfect combination for homemade salsa. They have also weeded the school’s reading garden and cleared space in a courtyard for an additional garden, one Zienius and Schwenk say the students are especially excited about.
“They are really invested in this project,” Zienius said. “I tell the students, even when they move on to middle school and high school, they will always be able to say they took part in the Belle Heth garden.”
Along the way, students have also learned valuable interpersonal skills, like teamwork and collaboration.
“They’re sharing tools instead of toys,” she said.
Students in the Walking and Biking clubs have also been active this spring. Several students enjoyed a family bike trip at Wildwood Park in Radford, where they practiced different safety tips they learned through the Biking Club. Fourth grade students in the Walking Club took a field trip to the Radford High School football field, measuring their steps along the way.
“Our students have learned so much, and we have enjoyed learning alongside them,” Zienius said.
Still in its first year, Project GROW has so much potential, Hartig said, especially in a “post-COVID era.”
“Obviously, the pandemic has impacted year one,” Hartig said. “We hope that, as restrictions ease, our [Radford University] students will be able to participate.”
Hastings hopes to eventually send her psychology students to Belle Heth and other RCPS schools to conduct research and perform program evaluations.
“My counseling students need direct hours with people,” Hartig added. “Project GROW is a great opportunity for our students to develop skill sets that will help them move forward in their lives in terms of employable skills. And, it’s just a great opportunity for them to learn how mental and physical health contribute to each other.”
Beyond the involvement of the counselor education and psychology departments, the professors envision future collaboration with Radford University’s health and human performance and art departments, because “health encompasses so many areas,” they said.
“This grant has it all, and we are so excited to see how it will help our community for generations to come,” Hartig said. “Growing healthy children leads to healthy schools and communities, which is our ultimate goal.”