by Tonie Hansen

There’s still time for schools and community organizations in Silicon Valley to apply to become a Project Inspire recipient.

Last week, I told you about our 2008 Project Inspire winner Overfelt High School, which found the influence of Project Inspire continued long after the event actually ended. Today, we’re profiling the very first Project Inspire recipient, East Palo Alto Charter School, with whom we started it all in 2007.

Project Inspire “was one of the most inspirational days I have spent at East Palo Alto Charter School,” says Allison Leslie, former principal of East Palo Alto Charter School. We had about 500 employees, family members and teachers come out that day to provide much needed improvements to the grounds and facilities. Some of the things we accomplished included murals, a new volleyball court, playground safety improvements and landscaping as well as furnishing students with books and educational resources.

Photos from our 2007 work day: painting a large multiplication table (above); planting trees around the school campus (bottom).

But the real star of the project was the school’s garden, which we transformed with the help of Collective Roots, a nonprofit that works with schools to set up teaching gardens. Since 2007, the garden has continued to grow and give benefits to students and community. It’s now almost an acre in size and includes a small flock of chickens, a large industrial greenhouse and fruit trees.

Not only do students now have access to a gardening elective class and an after-school garden club, they’re also learning about science in an outdoor, hands-on environment. And they’re learning about nutrition and healthy eating in one of the first teaching gardens in Silicon Valley. Plus, the influence of the garden is felt far beyond this one school as the concept of an urban school garden spreads throughout Silicon Valley and beyond.

“The garden has become a destination site for field trips for elementary, middle and high school students from local and nearby schools, as well as for college and university classes, service projects, internships and research projects,” says Collective Roots director Kris Jensen. Local colleges and universities come through, as well as others from farther afield, like Humboldt State, Pomona College and Brown University. Jensen estimates roughly 900 students from other institutions tour the garden annually. And the site has become a model for at least three other local schools.

Before and after photos of the December day we left the garden (left) and in its spring glory, 2009 (right).

In 2009, the garden was Market Certified by the California Agricultural Department, meaning the food can be sold at local farmers’ markets. Community members are allowed to use the greenhouse to grow their own vegetables for future sale. In the greater part of 2010, the garden produced roughly 650 pounds of produce for use at the school and for distribution.

“It serves as a local, national and international model for what a school garden can be,” says Jensen. The garden’s success led to interest from visitors from around the world, and it’s even been included on Oprah Winfrey’s list of Food Volunteer Organizations.

Looking back at East Palo Alto Charter school, and other Project Inspire recipients, we’re just beginning to understand the impact Project Inspire has in the long run. Beyond one day of painting, planting and fixing, Project Inspire is often a catalyst for bigger and longer lasting transformation.

Stay tuned, because we’ll be back soon to talk about some of our other Project Inspire winners.