Katherine Kennedy manages the Lionheart Gardens, a one-acre plot alongside the Lionheart School, which is a non-profit school in Alpharetta for children with autism or similar challenges of relating and communicating. The students participate in every part of operating a working farm. We think this is the coolest, and Katherine is the coolest, so we wanted to know more!
Tell us a little about what you do at the Lionheart Gardens (located in Canton).
I’ve expanded the farm to increase production and sales, teach garden lessons for students, lead garden work, and help with therapeutic riding lessons.
Students come to the farm twice a week to learn and work in the garden. Some focus more on vocational training, so they exclusively work in the garden. Others switch between having a lesson and helping with farm work: they take care of the chickens, plant, mulch, weed, compost, and harvest. Lessons are always fun and very hands on—We mix our own amendments, create photosynthesis experiments, have a scavenger hunt for bugs or weeds, and make food and crafts from things we’ve grown. I also teach a kitchen science class where we prepare food for the garden for ourselves or to can and sell at market.
Tell me about the farm.
Oh gosh, it’s beautiful. Canton is at the foothills of the Appalachians and it really feels like you’re near the mountains when you’re at the Lionheart Gardens. Most all of our land is on a hill, which provides its challenges, but it also makes for some pretty spectacular viewing.
We keep organic practices on the farm, because I personally believe in the importance of keeping our consumers chemical-free, but now even more so because I would never want my students to be working in an environment with chemicals. Especially because there seems to be new information every day pointing to different causes of autism, and some have been connected to various chemicals.
How is the organic farm incorporated into education there?
Lionheart students run the spectrum of autism and similar disorders, so for some students the education is as basic as deepening their understanding of their place in space, the way their body moves, and visual and aural comprehension. Once these strengths are established in our students, they may begin to do more of the farm work. Lionheart kids love moving mulch and compost! Some days the students will solely work in the garden and other days we will focus on the science behind the garden.
For some of our students, the garden is part of their vocational training. Their gross motor skills are being honed and hopefully will one day help them to get a job.
Other students are excited about the opportunity to get more in-depth understanding of biology, so their time at the garden is split between classroom learning and application in the garden.
What kind of parental involvement do you have?
It is essential that parents continue the education our students get at Lionheart at home, so there is a very fluid relationship between teachers and parents. Lionheart parents are so excited to see the progress their children make at school or in the garden, so they are always eager to help out in any way possible.
Do you consider farming to be a form of therapy for the students?
A lot of Lionheart students are very sensitive to stimulation, so to be in a peaceful place away from lots of people and with lots of open space to roam is very calming to them. And for some, the repetition of garden tasks is very regulating when their minds may be feeling a bit cluttered.
What’s the best example you recall of a moment when the garden impacted a student?
My science students learned about the scientific method and used it as a guiding principal for evaluating the rest of our class: soil biology, soil testing, plant biology, amendments, and pest and weed problems. Each student was assigned a 30’ x 3’ bed to create a hypothesis and experiment and then follow through the rest of the season to test their hypothesis. This project required students to recall and put into practice their classroom learning. They visited their garden every week and took care of it as they saw fit. At the end of the semester, they were able to harvest the crops they had so meticulously cared for all semester.
What’s more fun for the kids, planting, harvesting, eating, or something else?
Ha, we just had this conversation today as we were celebrating the fruits of our labor with homemade salsa and mint lemonade. The students’ answers are across the board. Some kids really appreciate the satisfaction of working hard, moving heavy things. Others have impairments that keep them from being able to do such work and they often prefer planting or weeding. It seems that many of our students are a bit timid when it comes to harvesting.
How has working with the children at Lionheart affected you?
I love it. Working with Lionheart students is so thrilling because each student is so different. They have such unique strengths and needs that can be applied to their work in the garden–it often feels like putting together a puzzle. But when you can give these students a sense of achievement and empower them to make decisions and work independently, the reward is tremendous.