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Volunteers from UCLA community work to revitalize garden at local Mark Twain Middle School

First-year social welfare masters student Liam Mina and first-year Business-Economics student Cindy Kaneko work on constructing a garden arbor placed in the center of the garden.

By James Barragan

Jan. 30, 2012 12:37 a.m.

Isaac Arjonilla

UCLA Volunteers work on assembling the top structure of the garden arbor.

Isaac Arjonilla

Fourth-year international development studies student Rebecca Verlaque uses a pickax to soften the ground while working on the garden.

Clarification: The original version of this article was misleading. Rebecca Verlaque is the co-director of the “One Bus, One Cause” program.

Whiteboards, chalkboards and writing utensils lay next to shovels, mulch, bricks and plant pots in the garden of Mark Twain Middle School in West Los Angeles on Saturday.

“The Mandarin bed is done!” one volunteer yelled out, to sounds of approval from fellow volunteers, announcing the completion of a section of a garden as part of a beautification effort at the middle school.

The project, put on by the UCLA Volunteer Center, brought together 30 UCLA students, staff and alumni for the first-ever excursion of the “One Bus, One Cause” program.

The program intends to engage UCLA with the surrounding community by sending volunteers to go out to work in the surrounding Los Angeles area, said Rebecca Verlaque, a fourth-year international development studies student who headed the project.

“I think (the event) is really special because it is for a school,” said Tammy Rubin, a first-year undeclared life sciences student who volunteered at the event.

“The students, I hear, love this garden.”

The project at Mark Twain involved digging out sections for new plant beds and an amphitheater in the garden, laying down mulch to discourage weed growth and building a grape arbor in the middle of a garden.

The volunteers also helped build four new areas in the garden to go with the school’s foreign language curriculum, which includes Spanish, French, Korean and Mandarin.

Each new area will have plant life representative of the countries in which those languages are spoken, said Marianne Brown, a volunteer who is the head gardener at Mark Twain.

The garden has been part of the school for about 50 years, Verlaque said. In recent years, volunteers and staff at the school began to work on revitalizing the garden and using it as a diversion and education tool for the students, said Mireya Alonzo, an art teacher at Mark Twain who was at the volunteer event on Saturday.

Students at the school play in the garden during lunch and nutrition breaks, building forts and clubhouses, Brown said.

The garden is also incorporated into the educational curriculum for the school. Idalia Ramirez, a volunteer who teaches horticulture and nutrition three times a week in the garden, said she uses the names of plants and objects in the garden to teach her students spelling.

In the past, Ramirez has used the garden to teach students about irrigation in ancient civilizations, she said. Next week, she plans to use the garden to give her students examples of how the Mayans built terraces for agriculture.

Brown was the one who approached the volunteer center about doing their first “One Bus, One Cause” event at Mark Twain. After meeting Antoinette Mongelli, executive director of the UCLA Volunteer Center, during jury duty in 2010, Brown kept in touch about possible volunteering efforts at Mark Twain.

When she heard about the center needing a location for the first event of their new program, she offered Mark Twain as a location, Verlaque said.

Although the school is located in a prosperous neighborhood, Mark Twain Middle School is a magnet school serving underrepresented students from all areas of Los Angeles, Brown said. Some students drive as much as an hour and a half to attend the school, she added.

Some of the students who are bused to Mark Twain would otherwise not have access to a school with a garden, Verlaque said.

For other volunteers, the memories of their own school gardens factored into their efforts on Saturday.

“I used to have a garden at my school and it was beautiful and we used to eat lunch there and we loved it,” Rubin said. “I think when students have a passion for something like this and their school can include them, it’s an admirable thing.”

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James Barragan
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