Despite challenges of the COVID-19 global pandemic and shelter-in-place orders, class of 2020 persevered through program

Photo by Marty Cheek
Members of the Leadership Morgan Hill Class of 2020 — “the grittiest class ever” — created a children’s area at the Community Garden. From left, Jason Amezcua, Darcy Foster, Margaret Graham, Fidel Rios, Cyndy Sanchez-Singh, Andrew Miller and Susan Oldham-Fritts.

By Marty Cheek

When members of the Leadership Morgan Hill class of 2020 cut the ribbon at the grand opening of the new children’s area of the Community Garden Nov. 13, they will no doubt feel the pride of perseverance.

The students started 2020 with high hopes of attending classes together during the nine-month program to develop their leadership skills and connect with the community. In mid-March, the agenda changed suddenly due to shelter-in-place restrictions from the COVID-19 crisis. The month of April was a bit chaotic, but then their leadership skills and streaming video technology empowered them to get back on course.

Each Leadership Morgan Hill class is required to spend time doing a community benefit project. This year the students came up with several including a project to improve the Adult School in Morgan Hill. One student found out the city had once planned to install an area for children to learn about biology and eating healthy foods at the new Morgan Hill Community Garden just off Butterfield Avenue in the southern area of the city. Local firm Weston Miles Architects had even developed a concept for it. The city budget didn’t allow for this project, so the class took on the challenge.

“We wanted to find a place here within the Community Garden that was specifically geared toward children, and education of the outdoors and gardening and raising your own food,” said class president Margaret Graham. “We wanted to provide a place where they could gather in a safe environment, especially with COVID now. They can come here and be socially distanced and learn about nature.”

The heart of the children’s area is a beautiful gazebo that offers a shaded place where students can learn in the garden. Nearby are wood picnic tables for kids to sit. A bean-pole teepee will have ivy covering it, providing a fun place for children to hide. A “log scramble” of stumps and long wood poles gives kids a place to frolic.

Art also plays an important role in making the children’s area welcoming. Local artists painted a series of paver stones with whimsical images conveying gardening activities. The slates of a small picket fence section shows young people enjoying the sunshine. And a mural with the message “You Belong Here” provides a happy message for children.

Members of the Santa Clara County Master Gardeners will come to the site on a regular basis and do public tutorials on how to improve gardening skills.

“It’s just a nice fun place for families to come with the kids,” Graham said.

The people of the Morgan Hill community who have garden plots on the site here have been curious about the project, she said. “They’ve been super supportive and very complimentary. It’s been great.”

The class members hope that when it’s safe to have school field trips again, young people in Morgan Hill will be able to visit the space and explore the garden.

“Typically, the garden is for those people who have their garden boxes here,” said Cyndy Sanchez-Singh, the class’s project manager. “But the whole point of having a kids’ area is to open it up for field trips and for families to come in. They’re going to have to figure out how to do that because you do need an access code to get in and coordinate days to do that.”

Because of COVID-19, the class members realized that fundraising would be a difficult activity for a big project, so the simpler scale of the children’s area helped the endeavor, Sanchez-Singh said. The class figures the project received about $5,000 in funding, time and labor donations.

Local businessman Mike Cox and Community Garden president John Jenkins helped provide material for the tables and the log scramble. D.R. Domenichini Construction put up the gazebo. And artists donated their talent. Sakata Seeds and Moki Smith Tree Service contributed significantly.

Class member Susan Oldham-Fritts described how in mid-March the class was in Sacramento on the Government Day field trip and were listening to a panel where doctors talked about COVID-19. While they were in the Capitol Building, the orders from the state for the shutdown came out. The class streamed out of the building with lawmakers and their staff.

Oldham-Fritts joined as a member of the local American Association of University Women’s group. She said the coronavirus made the Leadership Morgan Hill program a challenge at first. But as the board of directors moved toward a Zoom format for class meetings, it transformed into a learning experience about how leaders need to be flexible to changing conditions.

“It was a very different class where you went from in-person, very close, to where the board wasn’t sure what we were going to do in April,” she said. “And then Zoom, Zoom, Zoom.”

The fires in California this summer forced the Police and Fire Day meeting to be cancelled. The heavy smoke hanging in the South Valley air also made it difficult for the students to work on the project on some days. A tradition of Leadership Morgan Hill is for each year’s class to refer to themselves as “the best class ever.” The Class of 2020 decided instead to call themselves “the grittiest class ever,” for the sheer determination to make their project happen despite overwhelming circumstances.

“We definitely kept the momentum going,” Sanchez-Singh said. “With everything going on, it would have been easy to say, ‘Forget it. Everything’s over.’ But we got through it. That’s what leadership is about.”

Class member Jason Amezcua joined Leadership Morgan Hill this year to get to know the community better after moving here three years ago. A whistle-blower investigator with Santa Clara County, he enjoyed the hands-on work of placing down the paver stones, screwing the table parts together, and constructing the log scramble play area.

“Creating a space for youth in the Morgan Hill Community Garden was awesome. We all had our ideas about stuff and so coming together, when we first started this seemed like a strange project but we had a purpose behind it,” he said. “We’ve put our hands on a lot of this stuff so it really means a lot to us.”

Marty Cheek