Elementary school teacher brings garden to life with the help of Bright Ideas grants

When Mrs. Jean Pelezo arrived at VanStory Hills Elementary School in Fayetteville, North Carolina last year, she noticed the opportunity that sat just outside her classroom.

A courtyard rich in sunlight and open space — waiting for a purpose.

“The principal basically said, ‘This courtyard is your oyster, do whatever you want with it,’” said Pelezo.

Planting the roots

The STEM teacher of 35 years got to work finding creative ways to utilize her new space — but she needed funding.

Previously a three-time Bright Ideas grant winner with Lumbee River EMC, Pelezo says she knew the cooperatives were the place to start.

She designed a garden that would serve as a pollination station, and more importantly a lesson in sustainability for the students.

“The idea is having something permanent, where I can talk to the kids about conservation and butterfly migration,” said Pelezo. “It integrates so many content areas.”

Pelezo’s creative thinking was rewarded with a Bright Ideas grant from North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives in 2022.

The garden slowly came together, with students pitching in to bring the small butterfly-shaped garden to life.

“It felt like a privilege to be part of something like this,” said Sullivan Coggins, a student at VanStory Hills Elementary. “It’s not every day you come to school and do this. Watching the plants and flowers grow every day as you walk by is inspiring.”

Pelezo says the garden became a major learning opportunity for the students, teaching lessons such as pollination and the migration of butterflies.

VanStory Hills Elementary would eventually host a community night with their new space, inviting several environmental programs and partners to join them for sustainability-focused activities for students and their families.

Life cycle of a butterfly

Just like the life of a butterfly, Pelezo says this garden is only in the beginning stages before it sprouts its wings.

Pelezo recently received a second Bright Ideas grant from North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives, which she says she will use to create new gardens shaped like a caterpillar and chrysalis. These two gardens will join the pre-existing butterfly to show the full life cycle of a butterfly.

“To go from just growing a cup of seeds for an experiment to now building a garden, you can’t put a price tag on that,” said Pelezo.

With five Bright Ideas grants in total during her career, Pelezo says these dollars are helping make a difference in the lives of each student that enters her classroom.

“The co-ops are investing back into the future, because these are the kids that are going to explore careers in STEM,” said Pelezo. “These funds make a world’s difference because you don’t know what it means to them until you work with them. You see the excitement and joy in their eyes.”

Pelezo says her classes will get to work on the expanded gardens this spring, with hopes of hosting another community event in May that will bring in more environmental and community groups and showcase their project.