Aaltonen receives Governor’s Volunteer Award for AgriLife Extension program support

AUSTIN – An AmeriCorps member working in conjunction with the 4-H and Junior Master Gardener programs of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service in Travis County was presented a joint state and national award at the recent 2012 Texas Nonprofit Summit in Austin.

Kristen Aaltonen received a Governor’s Volunteer Award — the AmeriCorps State and National “Getting Things Done” Award — at the summit, held Sept. 20-21 at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center. The event was presented by the OneStar Foundation and Greenlights organizations, with the awards event emceed by State Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin.

Kristen Aaltonen, left, of AmeriCorps works with youth at Norman Elementary as part of after-school activities presented through AgriLife Extension’s Junior Master Gardener and 4-H CAPITAL programming. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

Each year, OneStar Foundation joins the Governor of Texas “in honoring some of Texas’ most dedicated community volunteers…,” according to program materials. This year was the 29th that  awards were presented for volunteerism and community service.

“I was surprised and honored, especially seeing what others had done in the same volunteer award category,” Aaltonen said. “It was great to receive an award for helping at-risk kids in second through fifth grade get education and enrichment experiences they wouldn’t otherwise have had the opportunity to participate in.”

“We’re elated that Kristen was recognized with both a state and national award for her work in conjunction with Texas 4-H and Junior Master Gardener Program, both of which are AgriLife Extension programs,” said Lydia Domaruk, agent for urban youth development, 4-H CAPITAL Project in Travis County.

Domurak said for the past decade AmeriCorps volunteers have been working with AgriLife Extension personnel to bring educational programs and activities to youth throughout Travis County. Currently, 16 half-time and 16 full-time AmeriCorps members, including Aaltonen, work with the agency, serving more than 25 schools in Austin and Del Valle independent school districts.

In her commendation letter supporting the award nomination, Domaruk wrote: “Kristen worked with at-risk youth at two Title I elementary schools. She taught with the 4-H CAPITAL urban animal science program at Pecan Springs Elementary school… (and) spearheaded the Junior Master Gardener program at her site — planting six school gardens and teaching nutrition education to the kids at Norman Elementary School. The after-school programs she worked with kept kids safe after school, and taught them new skills and new healthy life habits.”

Domurak said AmeriCorps and AgriLife Extension personnel were able to teach educational programming at these schools thanks to a partnership with Texas Afterschool Centers on Education-Austin 21 and funding through Austin Independent School District’s 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant.

Aaltonen led efforts to build 14 new garden beds, purchasing and distributing soil for seven schools and compost and mulch for 16 schools, according to award nomination details. She coordinated activities, created informational spreadsheets, organized workdays, and helped deliver supplies to the schools – all while teaching after-school classes four days a week.

“While students were growing fruits and vegetables, they were also learning healthy eating habits by sampling nutritious food and learning the health benefits of what they were growing,” Domaruk said. “Kristen taught gardening at two elementary schools — Norman Elementary and Harris Elementary. At both sites, she educated the youth about the water cycle, plant needs, and what it means to be a good steward of the environment.”

Aaltonen shows the Governor’s Volunteer Award presented for her work in conjunction with 4-H CAPITAL and Junior Master Gardener after-school programs presented at two Title 1  elementary schools in Travis County. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

In her commendation letter, Karon Smutzer, Tiger Time coordinator at Norman Elementary, stated that Aaltonen “gave her all to students and staff” during the after-school program at the school, located in a limited-resource area where “students get little chance to experience many types of (educational) enrichment.”

“Kristen met these challenges and brought gardening to life for these students and still maintained classroom control,” Smutzer wrote. “Most of her students had no idea what it was to grow food, and yet many times I saw her and her group digging in the garden area to weed or harvest, enjoying every minute of the experience. The gardening experience had students trying and enjoying foods they thought they didn’t like.”

The program also gave participants an opportunity to get some fresh air and exercise, Aaltonen said.

“The kids got to be active outdoors and to learn about being healthy and about the environment,” she said. “And it was interesting to see how anxious the kids were to eat the fresh fruits and vegetables they had grown in the school gardens. They even ate them raw.”

“The projects at Norman Elementary and other schools in Travis County are a wonderful example of AgriLife Extension and volunteers working together to bring useful, hands-on learning to Texas youth,” said Lisa Whittlesey, AgriLife Extension program specialist and International Junior Master Gardener Program coordinator, College Station. “And it’s the work of dedicated and exemplary local volunteers, like Kristen, in local communities that allow us to teach youth about gardening, nutrition, teamwork and developing healthy habits.”

Whittlesey said from 220,000 to 225,000 Texas youth annually participate in Junior Master Gardener activities throughout the state, primarily through school-based programs.

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