Written by Jake Lloyd
Ever since Jerome Clemons arrived at Imagine Hope Community Charter School’s Tolson campus four years ago and began coaching DC SCORES in the fall of 2013, he and his teams of Soaring Eagles — the school’s mascot — have had to improvise.
The school, which sits on Edgewood Street NE nearly on top of the train tracks that head south downtown and north to Silver Spring, Md., has no green space. Literally, nothing. When walking out the doors on either the south or north side of the building, a visitor is greeted with asphalt.
Now what can kids do on a plot of hard ground that basically resembles a parking lot? Well, you should have been at the school the afternoon of Friday, May 20, for the culmination of Imagine Hope’s DC SCORES service-learning project.
There, on that blacktop, were dozens of third- through fifth-grade DC SCORES kids creating a garden of recycled bottles. They’d poke holes in every bottle — 2-liters, 20-ouncers, larger jugs, you name it — then fill them with soil and flowers. The portable plants would then be passed on to receive water before finally being set down with the others along a fence.
Over the course of a couple hours, an innovative, soda bottle garden was born.
How popular was this event? Well, the Imagine Hope students were joined in service by, among others: sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade alumni who have stayed connected to the program through Clemons and the Classroom Champions nonprofit that he also runs at the school; Steve Mesler, the head of Classroom Champions, and dozens of Olympic athletes from the Team USA Athletes Advisory Council; James Cole Jr., the Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education; and a U.S. Senator, Adrian Smith of Nebraska.
During two hours of after-school time, the mix of people from various backgrounds worked as if they’d been teambuilding for years to create a garden and also clean up several blocks of the surrounding neighborhood. Teams were color-coded, with the orange, purple and red clean squads returning to the school with heavy bags of trash.
This was all after the kids got a chance to network with the Olympians, asking various athletes all about their distinguished careers and receiving loads of advice. And it was after the kids, with Cole Jr. and Smith’s assistance, raised and affixed a United States flag for the first time outside their school building and sang God Bless America.
The first couple years, the DC SCORES team walked several blocks to the closest parks to practice soccer. Now, while it’s not ideal, they play on mini goals that they set up on the blacktop.
The Soaring Eagles have taken great pride in becoming a poetry powerhouse within DC SCORES, with fifth-grader Leron representing the school at the America SCORES National Poetry SLAM! (and on the local NBC station) in 2015 and the team performing well at the DC Slam! every fall.
Through DC SCORES, kids both currently in the program and now still engaged as middle schoolers have recognized that they don’t have to be limited by their facilities and location.
“I think it just gives them, it shows them that they have the ability to make change happen,” Clemons said. “They don’t have to watch somebody else do it; you don’t have to be an adult.
“You literally can be a 3rd through 5th grader or middle schooler and literally within minutes or an hour, make change occur.”
And when it came time for service-learning this spring, the team took advantage of a school-wide recycling effort to collect bottles and keep them from ending up in the trash.
Partnering with the Olympic athletes and having Cole Jr. and Smith help made the big day, named “Hope Helps,” even more enjoyable and rewarding for the kids — the culmination of months of examining the community’s needs and researching what could be done.
“It means that you take pride in your neighborhood, your community,” said Brandon, an Imagine Hope student, as he returned from one of the clean zones with a bag of trash slung over his shoulder. “We don’t want to go to school in a dirty hood.”
The afternoon expanded kids’ minds in more ways than one. First, they learned about new sports that were, yes, Olympic events! Curling. Archery. Rugby. Ping-pong. They gathered around table tennis champion Han Xiao as he showed them video of the sport on his phone; they grilled former U.S. Rugby captain James Gillenwater about the sport (“I learned that rugby is a combination between soccer and football,” said student Israellee); and they were introduced to curling and archery.
Then they learned that they don’t need green grass to beautify their school grounds. Bottles. Soil. A couple tools. Some seeds. And water.
A garden of recycled bottles was born.
“What my idea for them to understand was, You can do it,” Clemons said afterward. “Just because you might not have the resources, it just gives you the opportunity. You can do it with a little bit of seeds, some water, a bottle — literally.
“It might not look the best, but at least (you got) to get something off the ground; this is something you can do at home.
“Literally, you can turn any space or any item possibly into a little green outside garden”