NC Beautiful grants awarded to local schools

Published 7:28 pm Wednesday, January 29, 2020


For the Daily News

Just over 30 kindergarten and first grade students stayed uncommonly quiet on Wednesday afternoon in the gym at Eastern Elementary School. They paid rapt attention to a spontaneous lecture from 1960’s-era Duke basketball legend Steve Vacendak, while school counselor Elizabeth Picone happily held a giant cardboard check he had just given her. That symbol represented a grant happily accepted from Vacendak who, these days, gives back to North Carolina as executive director of NC Beautiful.

A private nonprofit organization, NC Beautiful is dedicated to raising awareness and appreciation of North Carolina’s natural beauty and resources, as well as the importance of environmental stewardship. Funded by a sizeable contribution from Nutrien, the group’s Windows of Opportunity grant goes to schools where related programs are succeeding in that mission. Eastern Elementary is among 32 grant winners, chosen from more than 100 applicants. That honor was also given to Chocowinity Middle School on Wednesday, for similar efforts.

The $985 grant was awarded to Eastern Elementary in recognition of its longstanding gardening program. The application was co-authored by Picone and former schoolteacher Lois Hoot, who still volunteers there. The two have coordinated a program that allows students to learn, first hand, how their local ecosystem operates.

The bulk of the grant will be used to restore many of the gardens that were badly damaged during last year’s hurricane.

ALL SMILES: Several of the 30-plus students who greeted representatives of NC Beautiful posed, on Wednesday, with the symbolic check and (back row, left to right) grant co-authors Lois Hoot and Elizabeth Picone, NC Beautiful Board Chairman Brownie Futrell, Assistant Principal Letisia Padilla, and NC Beautiful Executive Director Steve Vacendak. (Karen Thiel)

“A good 20% of our plants were either flattened or destroyed,” Picone said.

For more than 20 years, an ever-growing number of flower, vegetable and butterfly gardens have been maintained at the school. Students do everything from planting flower and vegetable seeds, tending the patches, watching them grow, and then tasting the vegetables they eventually harvest. “Many of our kids had never tasted radishes or peppers until they took part in this program,” Picone said.

They also go caterpillar hunting, keep them alive and watch as the chrysalis develops until, eventually, a butterfly emerges.

“Then they get to set them free but not say goodbye,” Picone said, “because the butterflies stay around. They love the wonderful butterfly plants our students have planted and tended all around our school property.”

The extra lesson they received from Vacendak — given in the coaching style he developed at Duke and two other universities — drew appreciative nods from teachers and students alike.

He gave them four rules: “listen to your parents…listen to your teachers and coaches…always do your best and, most importantly, be kind…because no one wants to be around mean people,” he said with a smile.

Even more than the funding and that coaching moment, Picone said she “really loved that, when our students were asked about the projects they worked on, so many were able to answer with details and share how they felt when they were doing that. It tells me that we’ve made an impact.”

GENEROUS GRANT: The gardens will bloom better at Eastern Elementary School because of (front row) grant co-authors Lois Hoot and Elizabeth Picone as well as (back row) NC Beautiful Chairman of the Board Brownie Futrell and Executive Director Steve Vacendak. (Karen Thiel)