For students at Costa Mesa’s Rea Elementary School, a garden cultivated in recent years by science teacher Monique Sweet and kids across all grade levels had become not only an outdoor classroom but a place of peace.
Young learners spent untold hours tending to plants or spreading soil in one of the garden’s raised wooden beds. Over time, it evolved into a place where classroom lessons on roots, seeds and the water cycle were imparted under sunny skies.
“Some kids really gravitate toward it. Some kids are just curious,” Sweet said of the area. “They get to pick and harvest everything and take it home. It gives them something to connect to that’s real life.”
But that idyllic picture was shattered sometime over Labor Day weekend, when vandals ransacked the garden, smashing fruits and vegetables, uprooting delicate tendrils and stealing pieces of equipment from storage sheds on the property.
Sweet got a call from Rea Principal Duane Cox the Tuesday students and staff returned to campus after the break. The garden was in ruins, he told her, and the police were filing a report.
“It was probably the low point of my teaching career — I was devastated,” she said. “[But] when I presented to students what happened, they immediately wanted to come in and clean it up. They wanted to rebuild.”
Still reeling from the shock of seeing the destruction of something so beloved, the teacher went on social media and shared a video explaining what happened. That act had an enormous ripple effect, explained Cox.
“People have come through and made offers of donations,” the school’s principal said. “The Costa Mesa Police [Assn.] donated a Home Depot gift card, and they donated a wheelbarrow and a variety of plants. Other groups and individuals have reached out as well.
“This is a lesson in perseverance,” he continued. “These things happen, but how do you bounce back? How do you find the spirit to keep going?”
Community members dropped off bags of soil, avocado trees and, in one case, a huge composting bin. Sweet updated the public through Facebook posts and created an Amazon teacher wish list to catalog classroom requests.
Jimmy Brown, a Costa Mesa police sergeant and CMPA treasurer, said when members learned what happened, they wanted to aid the garden recovery effort.
“Countless hours had been spent by the students and the teachers to maintain the garden. When we hear things like this, where there’s been a loss, we want to help give back to the community,” Brown said of the group’s donation. “We can’t wait to see how the garden grows — we hope it comes back to life.”
Thursday afternoon found Sweet and about a dozen students happily spending the remainder of a lunch period working in the garden. Some transplanted a donated hibiscus tree into a larger pot, while others peeked inside composting boxes to watch dark worms undulate underneath apple peels and bell pepper pieces.
“It’s very fun helping Ms. Sweet in the garden,” said sixth-grader Dulce Alvarado, who especially likes watering the plants. “But ever since they destroyed our garden, I feel like it’s been really stressful for her.”
Classmate Natasha Escobar said it was important for students to help fix the space.
“We like coming and seeing the beauty of our garden,” she said. “I like the memories that are here — we’ve had many happy moments.”
Even though Sweet is technically the teacher, the Costa Mesa resident acknowledged she’s learned something by having lost a garden paradise, only to see it come to life again in the loving hands of the children and the wider community.
“I feel like the biggest lesson for the kids, and what this actually taught me, is resilience,” she said. “And community — this showed them the good and how much people care about us and the garden and how they want us to keep doing this.”
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