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A class of preschool students at Old Mill Center for Children and Families got a start on their spring garden Tuesday by planting peas that they had raised from seeds.

They had a little help from some older peers, too.

Teens working at Community Services Consortium’s Youth Garden helped the preschool students to plant starts of potatoes and strawberries near the Old Mill playground, at its building at 1650 S.W. 45th Place.

The older gardeners enjoyed helping the younger ones feed two young goats.

The work was part of a new collaboration between the center and the consortium.

Kendra Meshnik, a therapeutic preschool teacher, said the idea for the collaboration came in January, when she met the Youth Garden’s crew leaders at a farm-to-school summit in Salem.

“We had about the same number of kids, so we thought maybe we should pair up,” Meshnik said.

Both organizations work with high-risk, high-needs children, so pairing up was mutually beneficial. The teens gained experience working with younger children, and the preschoolers learned about gardening from the more green-thumbed older youths.

Meshnik's class visited the CSC Youth Garden at 536 S.W. Second St. in February, and they enjoyed seeing the seedlings sprout and grow.

“One of the amazing things about gardening is it is a transformational experience,” she said.

The teens also enjoyed the role of instructor, said Toni Kessler, the teacher and crew leader for the CSC Youth Garden.

“Any time you get to teach something, you learn it more,” Kessler said. Seven of the Youth Garden's 10-person crew attended Tuesday's planting at Old Mill.

Kessler said that the teen gardeners learned patience, and they enjoyed a break in their routine. Over the course of the growing season, they usually spend more than 30 hours a week planting crops, maintaining plants, harvesting food and selling their products at the Corvallis Saturday Market.

Kessler said the youths in the program do it for high school or General Educational Development credit. But some of them are participating to complete work force training.

Danielle Trammell, 19, has worked with the garden since October.

“It’s been a really good opportunity," she said. "It’s been really helpful getting me back on my feet after a really difficult year."

Jaden Hisel, a 5-year-old in Meshnik’s class, said she liked growing peas and planting them in the garden.

“I felt happy,” she said of seeing that the class’ seeds had sprouted.

She added that she is excited to continue to watch the peas grow.

“We planted ... with our new friends,” she said.

And she said she is looking forward to inviting the garden workers back when they harvest the peas.

“We will pick them and put them in our soup. And put crackers in the soup,” she said.

Meshnik said she would like to see more peer-to-older-peer collaboration. Unlike many preschools, Old Mill continues during the summer, and so does the Youth Garden. Kessler said the youth gardeners will come back in May to install some raised garden beds.

Kate Caldwell, the development manager for Old Mill Center, said the garden project was part of the organization’s push to educate kids about healthy eating and introduce them to fresh foods.

“A lot of our kids are not often exposed to fresh foods because of their low income status,” she said.

Caldwell said the center has five programs, including its relief nursery; the preschool is part of that. She said Old Mill Center serves more than 1,400 clients each year, including children and parents.

Bev Larsen, a co-founder of Old Mill Center, died just over three years ago. Caldwell said Old Mill Center has continued to thrive in the years since Larsen’s passing, building on her legacy. It now serves children in Linn County, and is about to begin additional outreach in Monroe.

“We are growing geographically as well as in number of clients,” she said.

Anthony Rimel can be reached at anthony.rimel@lee.net, 541-758-9526, or via Twitter @anthonyrimel.

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