Country in the Park, Pinellas Park's largest celebration, will feature seedlings and yearlings grown by special-needs kids.
By DONNA WINCHESTER
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001
PINELLAS PARK -- At first glance, the 2-foot seedlings looked like spindly greenish-brown sticks. Nestled in clear plastic sheets inside large cardboard boxes, their pale-yellow roots were the only clue that they were living things.
Not many of Dee Robinson's agriculture students at Nina Harris Exceptional Education Center, 6000 70th Ave. N, knew the seedlings were green ash. But they all understood that the young plants will grow into big trees, and they knew it was their job to get them started.
Robinson's mentally retarded students have been growing trees for Country in the Park, Pinellas Park's largest civic celebration, (see related stories, this page) for 10 years. They made their annual exchange with the city last week, trading 290 "yearlings" -- young trees they've nurtured from seedlings since last March -- for a new crop of seedlings.
The yearlings will sell for $5 at the celebration in the park immediately north of City Hall, 5156 81st Ave. N, on Saturday. Two thousand additional seedlings, bagged by the students in protective plastic sleeves, will be available for free.
According to school and Pinellas Park officials, it's a good arrangement for both the students and the city. The students enjoy growing the trees, and the city can offer something it would not be able to afford if it had to rely on its own manpower.
The work got under way early Monday morning. Robinson's first-period students mixed potting soil with perlite and peat moss. Throughout the day, she divided her three classes into groups and assigned each a job so the work would go smoothly.
"I have quite an array of students," she said. "Some are very capable and some are very limited. We give them jobs accordingly."
In her third-period class, several students, including Michelle Higgins, 18, used yellow-handled trowels to fill 3-gallon plastic pots with the rich soil. Michelle concentrated on her work, patting the soil down with her hands. She carried the pots to a second work station, where Bryan Johnson, 22, and Patrick McAnally, 17, clad in blue work aprons, dumped some of the dirt onto a table and put a seedling in each pot. They scooped up handfuls of soil from the table and filled the pots back up.
Next, Muhammad Williams, 21, loaded the seedlings on to a cart and took them to the shade house to be watered. He said he was assigned the job because his teacher knows he's a hard worker.
At a third station, Robinson's teaching assistant, Rene Mills, handed green ash, magnolia, wax myrtle and red maple seedlings to several students, who put them root end first into plastic sleeves.
By the end of the week, almost 300 seedlings were planted. Nearly 1,000 were bagged and waiting to be taken to the city's technical services building, where they will stay until the celebration. According to building development inspector Bill Byrd, anyone who can't wait until Saturday to buy a yearling or pick up a free seedling can come by the building department, at 6051 78th Ave. N."Pinellas Park is a Tree City USA," said Byrd, adding that it has earned the award for 11 years. To qualify, a city has to have a program that encourages tree planting and landscape maintenance.
He said the Nina Harris students encourage people to plant trees. Homeowners can get a tree that has been nurtured through its first year, when it is most likely to die. They also get a great deal. Byrd said that trees the size of the ones the students grow -- up to 4 feet -- would cost $20 to $25 at a nursery.
He said the trees almost always sell out. "If there are any left over, we'll take them back to the school, where they'll grow even bigger," he said, explaining that they'll be brought to next year's Country in the Park. "Someone gets an even better deal for $5."
The city spent $340 earlier in the year to purchase the seedlings from a nursery in the Panhandle. The proceeds, usually around $1,200, according to Byrd, are turned over to the school's agricultural program.
"Everyone benefits," he said. "The kids get a real kick out of it. The city is able to give the trees away. Citizens benefit because they get more trees, more shade and cleaner air."
Robinson said the benefits for the students go beyond the fact that they enjoy working outdoors.
"The things they do in agriculture class, including this project, teach them to stay on task, to follow directions and to listen," she said.
Although they have limitations, she said that every student at Nina Harris finds out that he or she can do something.
She said Ebony Thompson, 21, is an example.
"She's in a wheelchair. She can barely see. She only has the use of one hand. Yet she can take the trowel and put shovelfuls of dirt in a pot," Robinson said. "We work on the basis that every student can do at least a little piece. They can contribute to the program. They gain a sense of worth."
6:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Historical Society Coffee and Doughnut Sale
9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Chamber Trade Show and Job Fair, City Displays, Community Regional Bloodmobiles, Potted Tree Sale and Seedling Giveaway, Florida Fresh Water and Game Commission, Pinellas County Cooperative Extension Service
9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Girls Incorporated Crafts in the Park
10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Pinellas Park Police Explorers Racing Display
10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Amusement Rides (free)
11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Face painting by Luv-A-Clown
9 a.m.-5 p.m.
10 a.m., 1 p.m.
Hank Shaw and Cactus Creek Band
Noon, 2 p.m.
Briar Hill Band
Tribute to Dale Earnhardt