Anchorage high schoolers learn gardening and giving through 'Green Thumb Project'

In 2009, Service High School teacher Taunja Igtanloc got a simple request. A special needs student wondered if it would be possible to plant some plants in the school's mostly vacant greenhouse as a special project.

Igtanloc couldn't see a reason not to, and let the student move ahead with planting. But as the end of the school year approached, a question arose: What to do with the plants? They had grown nicely, but couldn't be maintained during the summer when school wasn't in session.

The student's mother checked around and found a possible solution in the form of Catholic Social Services' refugee garden in Mountain View, which could use the donated plants.

From there, an idea was born. Get a group of students together to continue planting starters, raising money for the project along the way, and donate the results to the refugee garden -- formally called the Fresh International Gardens -- at the end of each school year.

Seven years later, Service's Green Thumb Project is still growing.

"If he got enjoyment out of it, so be it," Igtanloc said of the student's initial project idea. "But it just blossomed to this giving to the refugee garden."

Now, about 20 students meet twice a week for about an hour at a time after school. It's a relaxed affair. In between picking seed pods off dried coriander stems and transferring them into dirt-filled pots, students socialized, chatting about tests and other after-school activities as David Bowie played on someone's cellphone.


On Wednesday, the students were planting cilantro, peas and pole beans. All of the starters the students donate each year make up a significant portion of the 8,000-square-foot garden in Anchorage's Mountain View neighborhood, according to Julie Riley, a horticulturist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension who oversees the refugee gardeners each year. The garden -- maintained by refugee immigrants each summer -- not only provides a small source of income for farmers, but serves as a teaching tool. Riley said it teaches them skills like handling money and improving their English.

Before the Green Thumb Project, Riley asked around for donations from local greenhouses, but having a direct line to starters from the students makes everything easier. She said last season the garden raised close to $12,000 selling produce at local farmers markets, the most ever.

"I don't know what we'd do if we didn't have the plants that they're growing," she said.

The students raise money for the project by selling some of the starters, along with Mother's Day flower boxes made in the Service shop class. Of the students participating, some are there to collect National Honor Society community service hours, others are just friends of fellow Green Thumb members looking for a way to spend time after school. Many were returning from last year and wore green T-shirts with the refugee garden logo.

Senior Zoë Wangstrom said those T-shirts are a big deal. She and others were particularly proud of this year's shirt and design, which features the phrase, "Lettuce Turnip the Beet."

While there's plenty of fun, Wangstrom also sees other upsides, like getting to interact with the refugees who come in on occasion to assist, and knowing that people will get to eat fresh, healthy vegetables.

"It's all positive," Wangstrom said. "It's not a big commitment for us, but a lot of gains for the community."

"It's fun to do after school instead of just sitting around," said fellow senior Lauren Ellenbecker. "It gives you a sense of pride."

Special education teacher Adam Ahonen watches over the group. Ahonen said his role is mostly behind the scenes, keeping an eye on students and maintaining bookkeeping for the project.

"The more they can do on their own, the more they'll get out of it," Ahonen said.

That includes everything from mapping out what to plant as the months progress to recruiting others to join the club. That gives them a sense of ownership over the project. On Wednesday, group leader Sage Romey, a three-year member of the club, stood in the greenhouse helping students organize flats of plants that were ready to germinate.

She pulled a plastic tray of blue curled scotch kale from a high shelf, pointing out the tiny seedlings that had emerged in the week since they'd been planted.

"I'm super proud of these," she said. "They're really cute, mostly."

Romey said the club is about more than just cute plants. It's also a chance to help the students connect with refugees who have lives and backgrounds far different from their own.

She said the languages between the two groups might sometimes be completely different, but that doesn't stop collaboration.

"It's really neat to have a common purpose," she said. "Even if everything else is different we still have this common goal to have these plants be successful.

"Part of humanity is planting, so to be a part of that is awesome."

Suzanna Caldwell

Suzanna Caldwell is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in 2017.