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Relf promotes service learning

By Christina Walker, student intern

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 30 - May 1, 1997

Although the Service-Learning Center is a relatively new organization at Virginia Tech, horticulture Professor Diane Relf has required students in her Horticulture and the Community class to participate in service-learning projects to better the community and teach the value of volunteerism for the last 12 years.

"I have worked in the community as part of my horticulture-therapy class for many years. The students in this type of class learn on many levels. They enhance their horticultural knowledge and skills while teaching others. They learn an enormous amount about people, particularly themselves, and they learn about the value and frustration of volunteering," Relf said.

Relf's program has two facets that emphasize the Virginia Master Gardeners and the 4-H horticulture curriculum. The Virginia Master Gardener Program consists of volunteer educators who work with their communities and schools on horticulture-related projects.

The 4-H program is used by 4-H volunteers who work with children in their efforts to learn about plants, said Kate Dobbs, masters candidate and research associate.

"Dr. Relf has played a major part in my decision to volunteer. She is a very strong supporter of efforts to bring horticulture into elementary-school curriculums to help children understand the benefits of horticulture in enhancing their life quality and their communities," Dobbs said. Based on the needs and goals of the fourth-grade teachers, part of Dobbs' service project has been to help integrate herb subject matter into the fourth-grade curriculum, she said.

Service-learning student Steve Taranto said that he works with students at Independence Secondary, an alternative high school in Christiansburg. "The school has been in existence for about three years and over this time a sizable garden has been built at the rear of the school." Taranto and another student, Meg Moran are working with seven students at the school and are building a water garden at the rear of the school.

Not all of Relf's students are serving in area elementary schools. Sung Hye Chung is working at the Virginia Tech Adult Day Care Center on indoor and outdoor planting projects with adults who have Downs Syndrome and elderly patients who suffer from dementia.

Paul Haden, a senior majoring in horticulture, is teaching a mini-series about the diversity of plants consisting of three hands-on programs at the Virginia Tech Museum of Natural History. He said he will introduce topics to children and show them pre-bookmarked web sites on the Blacksburg Electronic Village to illustrate the concepts that they will be discussing.

"(Relf), as the class syllabus says, is merely a moderator...I think that she is learning with us. She doesn't interfere with our progress, but does check to see what she can do to make things run as smoothly as possible. Dr. Relf is an outstanding resource, especially in the area of people/plant interactions," Haden said.

"Relf has been a mentor to me since I was an undergraduate student," said Sheri Dorn, a master's candidate and state master gardener coordinator. "She is currently my academic advisor for my master's-degree program as well as my supervisor in my position as the state coordinator for the Virginia Master Gardener Program."

Dorn is developing a volunteer plan for the garden program at Prices Fork Elementary School. The plan will assist the school in sustaining the garden program through the summer months. Dorn said that she will rely on resources from the community such as the Master Gardener program. Her plan will serve as a model for other schools and volunteer groups, she said.

"Through (Relf's) mentorship, I have gained a better understanding of how to work with people, providing beneficial assistance to others and maximizing the impact of my efforts. It is because of all of these things that I decided to conduct this project, rather than simply lead classroom activities or pull weeds in the garden," Dorn said.

"The Service-Learning Center is very glad to be working with Dr. Relf," said Michele James-Deramo, director of the Service Learning Center at Virginia Tech. "We expect to learn much from her years of experience working in and with the community."