Middlefork School's greenhouse revival starting to bear fruit

Middlefork School's greenhouse revival starting to bear fruit

DANVILLE — When Monica Campbell took over as principal of Middlefork School in 2015, she was excited to learn of the greenhouse on site and began imagining the educational possibilities that could go along with it.

Then, she learned why it hadn't been used the past seven or so years — broken heating, cooling and watering systems, among other things, and no money to fix them.

"I said, 'I can't believe we have this, but we can't use it,'" said Campbell, who set about finding a way to make it functional again and launch a program to teach students about horticulture and running a business.

Less than two years later, the seeds of her efforts have started blooming.

The school was able to make some improvements thanks to a $10,000 grant from the Cadle Foundation. Earlier this year, it started a small program with about a dozen sixth- through 12th-grade students.

And this weekend, the school will hold its first plant sale, set for 1 to 4 p.m. Friday and 9 a.m. to noon Saturday. It's open to the public, and items are cash only.

Sale items include: tomato and pepper bedding plants, succulents, herbs, annuals, hanging flower baskets and pouches and some unique house plants.

Campbell said all proceeds will be used to continue making necessary improvements.

Part of the Vermilion Association for Special Education (VASE) cooperative, the Middlefork School, at 15009 Catlin-Tilton Road, runs educational programs for K-12 students with severe emotional disabilities and autism.

It also runs the Regional Safe School program for 6-12 students who have been expelled from their home school.

'Sense of accomplishment'

Campbell said one of her goals was to offer a therapeutic day program for students.

"We were looking for alternative and positive approaches to help them manage their behavior," she said, adding that a horticulture/business program seemed ideal. "It can be very therapeutic. It's hands-on, and they can look at what they've done and feel a sense of accomplishment."

Campbell turned to Dale Dombroski, a former Danville schools colleague and retired florist. Dombroski also taught the horticulture program at Vermilion Occupational Technical Education Center (VOTEC). The Middlefork School occupies the old VOTEC building.

"I asked, 'If we don't do anything, what can we still grow and how can we use it?'" Campbell recalled. "He came over and looked at it, and said we could probably still use it in the late fall and early spring."

Later, Campbell learned some of the greenhouse equipment wasn't as bad off as originally thought. She said the grant covered repairs to the cooling and watering systems, replacement of the plexiglass walls and roof, and motors and bearings for four fans.

"We still need to seek funding for heaters and a modulator that makes everything work automatically," she said. "But we're just thrilled with what we were able to do."

Campbell recruited Joe Compton, the school's high school math teacher, to oversee a program.

"We felt it would be a good idea to take small steps," said Compton, who admits he's no Master Gardener but felt strongly about giving students a vocational opportunity — something he appreciated as a younger student.

'I don't see any bad kids'

Earlier this year, Compton helped students plant seeds in small pots, donated by Todd Schultz, who ran Schultz Nursery in Tilton. He chose vegetables such as tomatoes, leafy greens and some succulents that would sprout quickly.

Ralph Underwood, who works in the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System's botanical greenhouse, also donated some succulents and the house plants, which the class used to make cuttings.

Students work in the greenhouse on a daily basis, checking the temperature, watering and maintaining plants and taking inventory. They also priced plants for the sale.

"The kids have enjoyed it," Compton said. "And it's nice to see us working together as a team.

"When you talk about Middlefork, some people say, 'That's the school for the bad kids.' I don't see any bad kids here. I see kids who have some needs we're trying to address."

He and Campbell envision growing the program into a full-fledged business, holding an annual plant sale and raising vegetables to donate to area food pantries and use in the school's salad bar.

One day, Compton would like to see students earn a food-handing certification as part of the program — even put their personal touch on it.

For example, "If someone's interested in composting, we can set up a composting area," he said.

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