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Nurturing with Nature: Gretchen Norrell

Children's Garden Educator Gretchen Norrell strides into the office with dirt-caked hands in the air, a broad smile on her face. she checks something at her desk and hurries back outside. The San Francisco native spends a good deal of her time encouraging young children to join her in getting their hands dirty.

“Some kids wear their nice white Roca-Wear jumpsuits when they come to the Garden,” she says. “Those are the toughest ones to convince.”

Norrell loves her job, and it shows; since her tenure began as its head, the Children's Garden Program has doubled to include four city elementary schools, and several new programs have sprouted. “She tends to do more than what is required,” says Annette Huddle, Associate Director of Youth Education. “She's very proactive.”

Gretchen Norrell,
Gretchen helps two young friends pot up succulent cuttings at a recent Family Day Event.

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The Garden's rich soil and leafy scenery are a world apart from the concrete landscape Norrell knew as a student at Balboa High School in the 1990s. After a reconstitution of certain San Francisco public high schools, Balboa became awash in violent gang activity and toxic racial tensions. Norrell's gang alliances could not always protect her from physical attack, and simply riding the #15 bus home to Visitacion Valley was a dangerous undertaking.

Norrell's father was diagnosed with cancer when she was a child, leaving her mother as the family's sole breadwinner. Her older brothers joined gangs and sold stolen car parts to supplement the family's income. For one brother, this meant dropping out of high school; for the other, it meant prison.

Norrell's school advisor, Anna Bolla, would often call her at home to make sure she showed up for class, with varying degrees of success. Norrell graduated, but a series of jobs in the service and sales industries left her bitter and without focus. Seeking a change, she enrolled in general education and horticulture classes at City College. Then, in the fall of 2003, she took a friend's recommendation to intern in the children's program at SFBG. “Things just started to click,” she says. Feeling renewed, she “evolved into another person.” She began taking child development classes at CCSF and returned to the Garden for the summers of 2004 and 2005. “Kids make more sense to me than adults do,” she says with a smile.

In 2006, a major grant from the Institute of Museum and Library services allowed SFBGS to create the position of Children's Garden educator. Norrell was the clear choice. she has since spearheaded programs like “Nurture nature,” in which incarcerated parents work on the John Muir Nature Trail with their children. The Family Adventures program that she developed teaches parents how to share the natural world with their pre-schoolers. Norrell is quick to emphasize the value of outdoor multi-sensory education for children in their formative years.

“Kids are figuring out the world, and we need to let them,” she says. “They are given a great amount of freedom here. It's a real experience.” Studies show that an increasing number of urban youth are being deprived of invaluable exposure to the natural environment, leading to what is sometimes called Nature Deficit Disorder. Knowing the consequences well, Norrell advocates an educational system that will combat this trend.

On the first day of her children's docent training in 2005, Norrell did a double-take when she saw Anna Bolla sitting in the classroom. Bolla had recently retired and decided to volunteer at the Garden, and was overjoyed to meet her former high school advisee in better circumstances. Though the two had followed very different paths to the Garden, Bolla noted that their shared story reveals the enormous community-building potential of the place, which should be fostered and developed. The docent training was one class that Norrell didn't need to be reminded to attend.

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