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Church helps school with outdoor classroom
Tyler Elwood inspects a sunflower during his visit to Coal Mountain Elementary School’s outdoor classroom. About 50 volunteers from the staff of Browns Bridge Community Church recently helped the school’s special education department make upgrades to the outdoor classroom at the school. - photo by Autumn McBride

Students at Coal Mountain Elementary will return to a new and improved outdoor area when the school year begins Aug. 11.

About 50 volunteers from the staff of Browns Bridge Community Church came out Wednesday to help the school’s special education department make upgrades to the outdoor classroom.

Crystal Lee, a special education teacher, said the improvements included installing several raised beds that will be used to grow vegetables.

"I wanted to do something in the outdoor classroom with the students that I serve," Lee said. "We as the special education department thought it would be really cool to start a gardening club with our students."

Principal Debbie Smith agreed.

"Crystal and everyone else in this department have done an outstanding job with this project," she said. "The best thing will be having a club sponsored by our special education kids. For them to do this will bring them such a sense of pride."

The Browns Bridge volunteers spent most of the day working on various jobs such as trimming, weeding and clearing up the area for the raised vegetable beds, as well as planting small shrubs and trees.

Shawnie Merritt, one of the volunteers, said the group also built chicken wire cages to go around the beds to keep out animals such as squirrels, rabbits and deer.

They also built an arbor, sign with directions pointing to the different aspects of the outdoor classroom and a compost bin.

Merritt said she and her follow church staffers were eager to help with the project.

"We’re a partner in education with several of the elementary schools up here and when Crystal [Lee] presented this project we thought it would be a great one for us," she said.

"Each year, all the staff of the church goes out to do a community service project – we call it Venture Out – so this was perfect for that."

Lee said their efforts will be well used when the students return.

"We’ll use the garden to teach science and how plants grow. There are also math and social studies lessons that can be taught, and it will be great for the [students’] social skills," she said.

Art teacher Toni Sullivan and Jim Reed, another special education instructor, also worked on the garden area.

Both said all students will benefit from the garden project.

"We don’t get enough natural light in the building and just being able to get out and in a natural environment is inspiring," Reed said.

Added Sullivan: "I’ll have the students working on lots of projects to set off the area."

Lee said the garden will even bring out the student in herself.

"I’ve never done any gardening myself, so I’ll be learning right along with the students," she said.