By Rene’ Day

School is out for the summer – but for some teachers and students, work doesn’t stop. Especially when they are in the business of providing HOPE. Last year, Dustin Cleckler’s Agriscience classes at Shelby County High School in Columbiana joined Marisol Lilly’s Special Education students in a joint business venture with Keith Richards’ Tazikis Mediterranean Café. When you next visit one of these popular restaurants in the Birmingham area and enjoy one of their signature dishes, you will likely benefit from these students’ labor.

HOPE – Herbs Offering Personal Enrichment – began two years ago with a conversation between Richards and Shelby County schools career coach Cindy Vincent. His restaurants needed locally sourced fresh herbs and her students needed real-world learning experiences. It was a match made in heaven and has since expanded from Alabama to Nashville, Tennessee. The concept is simple. In school garden plots and greenhouses, students with special needs are paired with Agriscience students to grow herbs such as basil, oregano, parsley, rosemary and cilantro. They then harvest, weigh, bag and deliver them to Tazikis. Students also handle all the invoicing and money collection. Earnings go back into the school programs to improve classroom facilities and curriculum. Any excess herbs are either sold locally or used in the school cafeteria. The students are learning “on the job” in this collaborative venture that continues to earn recognition for its innovative approach to “life-skills” education.

However, it often takes a “village” to bring HOPE. Cleckler is quick to point out that assistance for the program came from a variety of sources. The Tazikis partnership required a new greenhouse at the school and donations from Shelby County Career Technical Education, Shelby County Farmers Federation, CAWACO, Shelby County Cattlemen’s Association, the Novella Club, Shelby County Juvenile Court and the City of Columbiana helped make it possible. Shelby County schools even allowed vacant portions of land next to the Board of Education to be used for raised planting beds. Recently, the program expanded to include the use of aquaponics to help raise some of the herbs. The plants use fish waste from on-site tilapia pools as nutrients and, in turn, provide clean water for the fish. Harvesting of tilapia will begin in the fall. It brings sustainable food cultivation full circle.

This business of HOPE is even providing some summer income to local students who have been hired to take care of the plants during the school hiatus. Supervised by the teachers, these learners will gain additional work experience and job skills in addition to the extra money. It is a win-win situation for all involved. And, the program provides inspiration for other schools and school systems. Cleckler notes, “The growth of the program has attracted visitors from schools around the Southeast. Many of them hear about what we’re doing, come to visit, and return to start their own programs. Meeting other school leaders inspires us to improve our program and we are anxious to see it spread nationwide.”

Indeed, we are HOPE-ful that it will.