Kristen Aaltonen received a Governor’s Volunteer Award — the AmeriCorps State and National “Getting Things Done” Award – at the 2012 Texas Nonprofit Summit in Austin for her work with 4-H CAPITAL, an after-school program in Travis County.
“It was great to receive an award for helping at-risk kids in second through fifth grade get education and enrichment experiences they wouldn’t otherwise have had the opportunity to participate in,” Aaltonen said.
4-H CAPITAL provides high quality after-school enrichment programs that focus on science, engineering and technology. The program began in 1992 as a 5-year USDA grant. Adopted by Travis County in 1997, the program received its first AmeriCorps grant in 2003; since then, AmeriCorps funding has been continuously renewed annually. With the support of AmeriCorps volunteers, 4-H CAPITAL has grown from one school to 30, totaling more than 25,000 contact hours annually with Travis County youth.
“We’re elated that Kristen was recognized with both a state and national award for her work in conjunction with Texas 4-H and Junior Master Gardener Program,” said Lydia Domaruk, agent for urban youth development, 4-H CAPITAL Project in Travis County.
AmeriCorps volunteers have been working with AgriLife Extension personnel to bring educational programs and activities to youth throughout Travis County for the past decade. Currently, 16 half-time and 16 full-time AmeriCorps members, including Aaltonen, work with the agency, serving more than 25 schools in Austin and Del Valle independent school districts.
In her commendation letter supporting the award nomination, Domaruk wrote: “Kristen worked with at-risk youth at two Title I elementary schools. She taught with the 4-H CAPITAL urban animal science program at Pecan Springs Elementary school… (and) spearheaded the Junior Master Gardener program at her site — planting six school gardens and teaching nutrition education to the kids at Norman Elementary School. The after-school programs she worked with kept kids safe after school, and taught them new skills and new healthy life habits.”
AmeriCorps and AgriLife Extension personnel are able to teach educational programming at these schools thanks to a partnership with Texas Afterschool Centers on Education-Austin 21 and funding through Austin Independent School District’s 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant.
Aaltonen led efforts to build 14 new garden beds, purchasing and distributing soil for seven schools and compost and mulch for 16 schools. She coordinated activities, created informational materials, organized workdays, and helped deliver supplies to the schools – all while teaching after-school classes four days a week.
“While students were growing fruits and vegetables, they were also learning healthy eating habits by sampling nutritious food and learning the health benefits of what they were growing,” Domaruk said. “Kristen taught gardening at two elementary schools — Norman Elementary and Harris Elementary. At both sites, she educated the youth about the water cycle, plant needs, and what it means to be a good steward of the environment.”
In her commendation letter, Karon Smutzer, Tiger Time coordinator at Norman Elementary, stated that Aaltonen “gave her all to students and staff” during the after-school program at the school, located in a limited-resource area where “students get little chance to experience many types of (educational) enrichment.”
“Kristen met these challenges and brought gardening to life for these students,” Smutzer wrote. “Most of her students had no idea what it was to grow food, and yet many times I saw her and her group digging in the garden area to weed or harvest, enjoying every minute of the experience. The gardening experience had students trying and enjoying foods they thought they didn’t like.”
The program also gave participants an opportunity to get some fresh air and exercise, Aaltonen said.
“The kids got to be active outdoors and to learn about being healthy and about the environment,” she said. “And it was interesting to see how anxious the kids were to eat the fresh fruits and vegetables they had grown in the school gardens. They even ate them raw.”
More than 220,000 Texas youth annually participate in Junior Master Gardener activities throughout the state, primarily through school-based programs.
“The projects at Norman Elementary and other schools in Travis County are a wonderful example of AgriLife Extension and volunteers working together to bring useful, hands-on learning to Texas youth,” said Lisa Whittlesey, AgriLife Extension program specialist and International Junior Master Gardener Program coordinator. “And it’s the work of dedicated and exemplary local volunteers, like Kristen, in local communities that allow us to teach youth about gardening, nutrition, teamwork and developing healthy habits.”
Each year, OneStar Foundation joins the Governor of Texas “in honoring some of Texas’ most dedicated community volunteers.” The event was presented by the OneStar Foundation and Greenlights organizations Sept. 20-21.