Lauer’s Park Elementary School has teamed up with GoggleWorks Center for the Arts for a project called GoggleWorks’ Gardens at Lauer’s Park. The gardens feature a number of classrooms, native plant habitats and greenhouses; hoping to add beehives, outdoor ponds and waterfalls, in the near future.

Previously run by the elementary school and dreamed up by long time principal, Gordon Hoodak, teachers, students and volunteers maintained the space as an opportunity for student learning and experimental planting. Undermined by the pandemic in 2020, maintenance of the space became more of a burden than an opportunity. Since officially announcing the project in June, the gardens have been maintained by GoggleWorks’ Garden Manager, Tiana Lopez, and a number of passionate volunteers, pulling overgrowth, reinvigorating the soil and placing new starts once more.

The elementary school’s current principal, Jasmin Sanchez-Lopez, reached out to GoggleWorks to help restart the garden program where Tiana will lead garden operations and educational programs. While passionate about food production, Tiana is also enthusiastic about including art in the garden space saying, “especially for children, a garden should be a little kooky and there should be different pieces of art, some crazy sculptures, some really big giant pots.” She also foresees lots of kid friendly projects like stepping stones and mobiles.

In addition to garden management and production, Tiana is excited about GoggleWorks After School Arts Program (ASAP) classes starting this fall, “I already love working with children; my background was in education before I started doing this kind of thing.” Tiana graduated from Shippensburg University in 2016 with her BA in English, Writing, and Education. Even though she is not an English teacher she still loves poetry, which is the inspiration for her own small plant business.

Recipients of a $10,000 Urban Agriculture Infrastructure Grant from the state of Pennsylvania, “GoggleWorks aims to use the art of agriculture to change the lives of those who live in the little-known food desert in Reading by transforming an alley with raised beds that will grow food for local families in need and provide hands-on opportunities for area youth.” Additionally, a grant from the Wyomissing Foundation provides a bulk of the funding needed to execute the community garden spaces, the garden manager position, and the ASAP programming focused on growing healthy food. An in-kind donation from Giorgio Mushrooms supplied soil amendments to enrich the current growing medium. Seeds, soil and many other general supplies for the garden’s infrastructure were also acquired through this funding. Providing fresh foods for the local community was an important aspect of GoggleWorks’ goal. The surrounding community is classified as a food desert, a condition where fresh affordable food is either hard to find or not available at a reasonable price for the families that live in the area.

“I do believe that there should always be a way to get free food around,” says Tiana. The container garden intends to do just that, its location easily accessible right off of 2nd Street in front of the school. “It’s also something that the public can choose [whether] they want to be a part of by cultivating it, but also if they are unable to [or] they don’t have the time to learn how to grow their own food, it’s already there for them, somebody else is already doing it for them.”

The raised bed gardens, which include fresh vegetables and herbs, are available for the community to take and use as they need. Leaders of the garden project, from both GoggleWorks and Lauer’s Park Elementary, hope that the gardens will help teach students about healthy nutritional habits that they will be able to take with them outside of the garden classrooms.

Pick-and-take activities are also being set up to better distribute fresh produce throughout the community. “As a parent, how nice [it would be] to be able to not have to drive miles and miles and miles away, to drop your kid off somewhere safe and in nature.” Tiana said, “I think that’s underrated because a lot of people think that every parent has the ability to do that and [realistically] they don’t. Some parents don’t have cars. But you could walk down here and bring your kids down here.” These activities are intended to encourage students to learn about the fresh foods they are eating and be inspired to share that information with others.

“For [the kids] to come in and see where their food is coming from, seeing it’s not just something you pass in the grocery store and go ‘eww’ at, not that your mom is just forcing you to eat it, but that it actually comes from the ground and you use your hands to grow it and it doesn’t just appear,” volunteer Libby Powers told me. As we were finishing up working in the garden, she went on to say, “It really shows the appreciation value for the food that goes onto your table every day.”

GoggleWorks’ team is currently brainstorming additional activities to host in the gardens such as movie nights, yoga, meditation, art events such as mobile glass blowing, and even a pizza night in the garden. Tiana told me that she is excited to use the clay oven, located in GoggleWorks’ Ceramics Studio, to bake the pizzas using the fresh herbs and vegetables harvested from the garden as toppings.

If you would like to participate in upcoming volunteer events in the Gardens at Lauer’s Park, make sure to fill out the volunteer form found on GoggleWorks website.