San Carlos Community Garden
A view of the San Carlos Community Garden. Photo courtesy on the gardn

I’ve worked as an occupational therapist at the Sierra School of San Diego since 2018. In my role, I help ensure our students spend time outside of the classroom, including field trips and time spent in the San Carlos Community Garden, a sustainable community garden that operates in partnership with our school, where we provide special education services to students who require additional educational and behavioral supports.

My career is dedicated to designing and implementing treatment plans that promote and improve cognitive, social interaction, and motor skills for children and adolescents who have historically had difficulties achieving success in the general education settings. In the classroom and in the garden, I’m thankful and overjoyed I get to witness our amazing students gain independence and achieve success.

Through the partnership with the garden, I take learning outdoors for our students. They get hands-on in the garden, tending to beds, composting and harvesting crops. Activities in the garden address sequencing skills, motor planning skills, problem-solving, attention to task, and task completion, which are areas that are difficult for a lot of our students.

The San Carlos Community Garden magnifies the beauty of our campus. But beyond that, it offers a multitude of learning opportunities. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the garden. Established in 2012 with a grant funded by the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency, the garden provides a safe and beautiful space for community members to grow their own healthy and organic food and flowers.

The garden shows that with consistency, dedication, and patience you can see progress and results. Students can access the garden if they are experiencing emotional dysregulation or sensory dysregulation in order to self-regulate and take a sensory break.

The garden also provides sensory exploration by working in the dirt and water for tactile sensory input. Pushing the heavy wheel barrow for proprioceptive input. Smelling and tasting new fruits and vegetables for the first time. The opportunities for therapeutic intervention in the garden are endless.

Learning in the garden isn’t limited to our students. I’ve come to understand more about the whole process of managing and growing a thriving garden. I’ve also learned patience and how much our students benefit and thrive by being outside in nature working with their hands.

Watching students in the garden makes me feel excited and proud that they are motivated and engaged in learning. When students are so eager about an activity — a job in the garden, or a hands-on science lesson in the garden — it shows that they are satisfied and taking ownership of their successes. I love seeing students excited about learning.

Sierra students help fulfill the garden’s mission of promoting gardening for nutrition and beauty; knowledge for healthy living and stewardship of the earth; collaboration of neighbors and schools; and spirit through inspiration and healing. As a Sierra staff member, it’s incredible watching our students interact and learn from members of the community. There is a special bond between our organizations. The garden is an integral part of the San Carlos community and Sierra School.

Working as an occupational therapist requires many of the same skills a gardener needs to succeed, including patience and perseverance. The entire Sierra School of San Diego community is blessed to have the garden as a space for nurturing our students and watching them grow.

Jessica Leiser is an occupational therapist at the Sierra School of San Diego, which focuses on special education and is located in San Carlos. She lives in the North Park neighborhood of San Diego.