Mala’ai School Garden’s ‘village’ relies on dedicated volunteers to nurture WMS students

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<p>John Dean helps build the Mala’ai Culinary Garden chicken palace with Nubaui, who works at the garden. PHOTO COURTESY OF WMS FOR NHN</p>
<p>John Dean works hard building the Mala’ai Culinary Garden chicken palace with Nubaui. (PHOTO COURTESY OF WMS FOR NHN)</p>
<p>John Dean adds the roof to the chicken palace at Mala’ai Culinary Garden. (PHOTO COURTESY OF WMS FOR NHN)</p>

They say “it takes a village” to nurture healthy children—all children –with nobody left behind.

This Sunday’s Mala’ai School Garden “Art & Sol” benefit auction is an exceptional example of the “village” stepping forward to support students of Waimea Middle School. For the auction, friends from many walks of life with diverse expertise — artists, chefs, wellness practitioners, outdoor adventurers, astronomers, resort, restaurant and yacht owners, and many others – are offering their creations and services for auction. Then, an equally diverse gathering of community friends will bid for the tempting pleasures and treasures.

Tickets are still available for Mala’ai’s 6th Annual “Art & Sol” auction from 12:30-3 p.m., Sun., June 2, at Merriman’s by logging on to Merriman’s donates the setting and pupus as part of Mala’ai’s diverse circle of support.

Support for Mala’ai is deep and complex. Some just love the beauty of the ¾-acre learning garden and the 4,500 pounds of organic produce students grow annually. Some believe the garden will change the health of the next generation. Still others believe all kids, including public schoolers, deserve this kind of healthy, hands-on learning experience – richly integrated with core curriculum — which publicly funded schools struggle to provide.

Each week, community volunteers contribute more than 40 hours to support Mala’ai in a myriad of ways.

John Dean, an almost retired octogenarian, with wife Jan, founded and operates Maluhia Farm in Kalopa Mauka, where they raise sheep for organic Hawaiian wool, hens for fresh eggs and two heifer calves on former sugar plantation land.

Dean is a man of many talents, including home builder, kitchen remodeler, licensed charter boat captain and yacht broker, macadamia nut farmer and a marine salvage business operator.

The thread that runs through these diverse occupations is simply that Dean has an uncanny ability to problem solve – something Mala’ai garden needs continually.

John Dean in Mala’ai when his wife agreed several years ago to become the board chair of Mala’ai. She pledged to help the then fledgling garden project formalize its non-profit status, thereby putting the great vision of Waimea’s Dr. Michelle Suber and Nan Pi’ianaia on stable financial footing. Soon, her husband became indispensable to the garden as well, drawing on his diverse problem solving skills to improve garden infrastructure – designing an outdoor vegetable washing and cooking station, designing and building a germination station and, most notably, creating a slightly over-built “palace” for the garden’s flock of hens, where the ladies are now safe from predators so they can go about their business of laying eggs for students to learn to cook as part of a healthy meal.

Each of these infrastructure improvements had its own set of challenges but Dean has history and experiences that helped him craft a solution.

Jan Dean got involved in the garden after joining Hawaii’s Slow Food convivium led by the late Nan Pi’ianaia.

Pi’ianaia was adamant that Slow Food support school gardens and she was ecstatic that Mala’ai’s founder, Dr. Michelle Suber, had recruited an experienced educator with a very green thumb from Alice Waters’ Edible School Yard in Oakland, aka Amanda Rieux, to officially start Mala’ai in partnership with Waimea Middle School.

One thing led to another, such that Jan Dean and John showed up for the second Mala’ai garden work day in 2005 to help transform a kikuyu grass field behind the middle school into a highly productive food garden. After supporting the garden mostly on their hands and knees for a year or more, Dr. Suber asked Jan Dean to take on a bigger role as executive director of the garden. She declined, but stepped in as president of the board and brought in Matilda Tompson as the executive director. Mala’ai blossomed into its current non-profit status with a dedicated all-volunteer board.

For both of the Deans, Mala’ai is a way to help do something about their belief that public school kids deserve better – that public schools need help from everyone in the community, and that a school garden has much to offer academically, socially, culturally and to student and community health and wellness.

Their work is far from done, but their generosity is helping Mala’ai achieve its mission of “cultivating the relationship between students and the land through growing and sharing nourishing food in an outdoor living classroom,” said Mala’ai’s current board chairwoman, Vivienne Aronowitz, who brings her own expertise and passion as a nutritionist to the garden project.

Volunteers are always needed to support Mala’ai and there are many ways to lend a hand, including attending Sunday’s “Art & Sol” benefit at Merriman’s.