A tall 38-year-old man with a wide brimmed straw hat and a wider grin walks through the front door of Clarke Middle School. He smiles and nods at the desk assistant who buzzes him in. Outside, a goat bleats at a rotting pile of compost taunting him from beyond his fence. A garden with rows of arugula and kale sits directly in front of the building. In two and a half years, the smiling man with the straw hat has taught students to treat nature as their classroom.
Wick Prichard drops his bag in the teacher’s lounge and greets his coworkers like any other teacher, but his hands, work-boots, morning stubble, and distinct cowlick suggest otherwise, Wick is not a teacher but an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteer in Service to America) and starts his day with garbage instead of children. He pulls a rickety cart of empty recycling and compost bins through the hallway. Exiting the building, Wick veers his bins to the left between garden beds with haste explaining, “The bell’s about to ring and it gets kind of nutty.”
Wick prepares for the nuttiness between wheelchair accessible raised beds a safe distance from an outdoor walkway. The garden beds were designed for Low Incidence Disability or LID students at Clarke Middle. In April 2015, the accessible LID garden was made possible through a connection that Wick had at the University of Georgia’s College of Environment and Design. Without Wick, teachers would not have the resources to create special projects like the LID garden for their students. Along with providing resources for these projects, Wick maintains each garden, works hands-on with the students and animals, and runs a produce stand after school. “He is this extra person that supports teachers enough and has his own ideas enough and can get the materials that can make that magic happen,” says Dr. Debbie Mitchell, Agricultural Education teacher.
Each week the LID students spend time maintaining or playing in their garden and have named themselves Sustain Ability. They use the produce from their beds and the school’s main front garden in meals that they cook and then sell to teachers. According to Wick, local Athens restaurant, Tzatzikis, even purchases some of the lettuce they harvest. The group follows their produce from planting, harvesting, cooking, composting, and selling. “They’re like a little Honda engine compared to the Clarke Middle School big tractor trailer garden,” says Wick.
Though passionate about it today, Wick became the school gardener by chance. After completing a master’s degree in environmental planning and design at UGA, Wick “fell into” his current position as a volunteer. As a VISTA, “You volunteer your service to the United States to fight poverty,” Wick says. A UGA organization and organic garden called UGArden applied for a volunteer to work at Clarke Middle. Because the school’s student body is largely impoverished, it qualified to receive a VISTA. The school’s first volunteer, Dr. Debbie Mitchell, accepted a job as the school’s Agricultural Education teacher in 2014, leaving her position open. When professor and UGArden Director, David Berle, urged Wick to take the position, he lacked other post-graduation offers and accepted.
However, working with students was not unfamiliar to Wick. He previously worked in 10 different states at various environmental education centers. His experience equipped him with songs about composting and worms that he continues to teach students at Clarke Middle. Wick sings an old favorite called “Gusano” about a worm. He proudly beats a compost bin singing the way a child probably imagines a worm does: “To eat the dead, as living is my toil. And what comes out makes magnificent soil.”
Despite his far reaching travels, remains of Wick’s southern drawl linger. Growing up on a farm in middle Georgia, agriculture was engrained in Wick at a young age. His father farmed, his grandfather farmed and advocated for small farmers, and his mother’s father worked in agricultural politics and policy. “I had a lot of ag inspiration but not directly. Little seeds were planted ding, ding, ding,” Wick says, miming placing seeds into the ground. Speaking to Wick, it is evident that he spends most of his time with children. His voice travels in and out of cartoonlike accents occasionally nearing singsong.
As Wick predicted, the floodgates open and students rush through the doors traveling between buildings through the outside hallway. Nature is ingrained into even the school’s floorplan, blending inside and outside spaces. “It’s awesome if these kids pass these gardens every day. You know, not all of them love gardening, but just passing the compost, passing by the chickens, by the goats, by the plants, it’s pretty sweet,” Wick says.
After the ruckus dies down, Wick digs an orange out of his pocket, removes and tosses the peel into a compost bin and continues eating while carting the tubs towards the cafeteria. Each week, students and faculty collect 300 pounds of compost and 200 pounds of recycling. The LID classes play a special role in the process, collecting and weighing compost with Wick. “I think they look forward to their Mondays and Fridays, composting time, recycle time, because that’s Wick time,” says LID teacher Jennifer Thomas.
According to Wick, engaging students in unique ways is especially difficult in Clarke County. “I wasn’t quite aware of the poverty in Athens. I knew about it like in numbers, but working here… It’s a day-to-day struggle to form a relationship that works that will help them see their situation differently and see the world differently,” Wick says. Nevertheless, he is hopeful for his students’ futures though he is uncertain about his own. Wick is scheduled to leave his position in the upcoming months. Afterwards VISTAs will be supplied to each school to duplicate the program he began at Clarke Middle. “I might be helping coordinate those VISTAs. I might not be. I’m not sure yet,” he says, switching into a mock witch voice, “We shall see.”
By Shannon Duffy