By Maggie Vetter

It all begins throughout the years students spend in the gardens, orchard, greenhouse, and kitchens at Ridge and Valley Charter School. In seventh grade, the idea of leaving this beautiful place that feels like home is looming on the horizon. Many feelings of gratitude flood, as does a desire to say thank you.

During the fall of seventh grade, just after Thanksgiving, students receive the bountiful harvest of tomatoes that were harvested by the 8th-grade class. These tomatoes were grown and cared for by the 8th-grade class that has since graduated and left behind as a gift. These tomatoes are brought to a local restaurant, Buck Hill Brewery, that has kindly donated their time and kitchen space to the cause. The chef works closely with the students, teaching them little tricks of the trade as they chop, mill and cook. Every student takes part in the making of home-made, gourmet tomato soup. The story of where these tomatoes came and where they are going is shared with the students, and they await to play a new role in the circle of giving next year.

At the end of 7th grade, the graduating class invites the 7th graders to the passing of the seed ceremony. It is at this time that 8th graders host questions, play games, and pass on their gifts of gratitude before they journey on. Each 8th grader is paired with a 7th grader as they walk into the garden full of tomatoes that are grown from seeds passed down from year to year. At this time, they are still small and yet to fruit. However, there is one barren spot left for the passing of the seed ceremony. Each 8th grader has a handful of seeds and gives a pinch of seeds to a 7th grader. The 7th grader plants his or her seeds and the 8th grader throws the remainder of the handful into the nearby meadow, a gift of farewell to the community of beings.

At the beginning of 8th-grade students are overwhelmed with the plethora of tomatoes to harvest from our garden. Tomatoes are shared and eaten graciously with all as the work is performed. The graduate classroom in the fall is a never-ending cycle of tomato harvest and preserving through drying and canning into a sauce. One day deemed, “Tomato Madness”, students walk into the classroom after lunch to dramatic music and read off cards hung around the room that informs about the tomato seed saving process before they dive into the saving of the seeds.

Just after Thanksgiving, following the 7th graders’ soup making, 8th-grade students participate in preparing a meal that includes the tomato soup from their garden at a local soup kitchen, The Manna House in Newton, NJ. This experience is eye-opening and transformative for many of the students, as they are awakened to the needs of so many so close to home. The feeling of being grateful for what they have is the most commonly shared emotion after working in the soup kitchen. The people served at the kitchen are surprised to learn of where the soup has come, as well as pleased with the delicious treat. They do not hold back their words of gratitude to our students and the students relish in the awareness of what it feels like to help others.

It all began with the magic in a tiny seed. Through the winter 8th graders will begin to put the seeds they saved into trays to later be transplanted in the garden. The germination of the seeds is a miracle to behold. Students water and nurture these tiny seedlings until they are strong enough to live in our garden that they have weeded and prepared. Some students even take off their shoes as they work the soil to feel the earth beneath their feet, to feel close to that which gives life. It is an experience that bonds, to the earth, each other, and all that lives. All in all, it is a celebration of life.

Ridge and Valley Charter School student maddy at soup kitchen

Ridge and Valley student serving soup at soup kitchen

Ridge and Valley Charter School student andrew at soup kitchen

Ridge and Valley Charter School Student Kaya at soup kithen

Ridge and Valley Charter School student eva cleaning tomatoes at soup kitchen