Sheila Clyatt is a third generation San Franciscan with roots in the Sunset District. For about 20 years she and her husband Tom raised their daughters Kate and Amelia in the small alpine community of Mount Shasta, and while homeschooling her own children, she became an educator for home and charter school programs in Siskiyou County. The couple moved to Benicia six years ago after they became empty nesters. Sheila’s been getting her hands dirty in our school gardens ever since.
Although her garden work is down to earth, she’s always had a rebellious streak. She’s hiked the 200 miles of the John Muir Trail, sailed on a schooner up the inland passage, kayaked with the orcas in British Columbia, hiked the Chilkoot trail in Alaska, bicycled alone across Europe, traveled by train across America, worked and lived alone on an island in Boston Harbor, and traveled to Central and South America, New Zealand and Pacific Islands. “When no one is looking I am apt to do something wild just to feel fully alive and push my own limits,” she says.
Lately, Sheila is on a new kind of adventure; planting roots in Benicia’s school gardens. At Liberty High School, she and her fellow Master Gardeners have transformed the garden space from a vandalized lot with a dilapidated greenhouse to a flourishing learning landscape with six productive beds, fruit trees, a covered gazebo for teaching, and a greenhouse to produce starts for other schools in Benicia.
Wearing her hat as a UC Davis trained Solano Master Gardener, Sheila also volunteers at Mary Farmar Elementary School. “It is a beautiful site overlooking the Carquinez, sheltered from the wind and providing the students with a rare opportunity to grow food and other environmentally supportive plants,” she says. Students harvest a bounty of fruits and vegetables, including persimmons, pomegranates, apples, oranges, avocados, apricots and berries. In several raised beds, students nurture leafy greens, peas, potatoes, artichokes and whatever they can make grow.
Sheila got involved in the schools through her community work as the coordinator of Avant Garden on First Street, and helping plant the first “urban orchard” in Benicia at Heritage Church with Sustainable Solano (formerly known as Benicia Community Gardens).
The school gardens are now her great love, but she can’t do it alone. “There is a dire need for volunteers,” she says. “There are some days I can’t even open the garden to the kids because we need at least one more adult.”
This is a bigger problem than we realize. According to Sheila’s research, children in the digital era are suffering from what experts call “Nature Deficit Disorder,” and are losing perspective of their own value, greatly due to the constant exposure to unrealistic images online. We know now that school gardens restore balance by offering some sense of control, and children are personally empowered by their ability to contribute.
“We have to teach our students how to be sustainable because those tools will empower them to prosper emotionally, spiritually and in health,” she says. “I’m in love with the kids. Everything I give them, they return to me ten-fold—they make my life better.”
Volunteers could have this feeling too. You’ll learn on the job, and parents and grandparents are especially encouraged. And, just in case it’s fear that’s holding you back, Sheila shares this: “Fear is never a restriction as much as a choice, and life can always be a new opportunity and a grand surprise.”
To become a school garden volunteer, please email Sheila directly at email@example.com.