EAST COUNTY — Manatee Palms resident and volunteer Paul Reynolds grabs a shovel as he steps into the garden he had planted with children from his neighborhood months ago at Bennett Park.
Tropical Storm Debby may have drowned the group’s watermelon patch, but Reynolds and the children are eager to prepare the plot for a new project: a mix of pumpkins and more watermelons.
As Reynolds transfers heaps of soft dirt from one spot to another, effectively widening each mounded row of the garden, he tells the children how the garden’s new design would filter off more rainwater and keep the plants from being flooded in the future.
“You make mistakes, and you learn from them,” Reynolds says, as children grab shovels and began to dig nearby. “You don’t make them again.”
Reynolds and his youth volunteers have been working at Bennett Park since November. The group, whose attendees vary each week, typically appears at the park each Saturday morning and over time has forged a nature trail, picked up trash and taken on other projects. They started the garden with the county’s permission in the spring.
Reynolds had hoped this month to hold a “watermelon party” for the youths to celebrate their garden when the fruits were ripe, but Debby devastated the low-lying garden area.
“It drowned the plants,” Reynolds says. “We hadn’t had rain for a week-and-a-half, but the dirt (was) still wet.”
Instead, the disaster proved a lesson in academics and in perseverance — two things Reynolds holds close to his heart.
“I grew up very poor,” Reynolds said. “I saw my parents get abused so much for not knowing. I saw education as a way to get out of being oppressed.”
He noted a time when he and his family walked three miles to a pizza parlor, placed their order, paid and waited. As they did, however, employees changed shifts, and the cashier asked for payment when their pizza was ready. Because they had not gotten a receipt and they had no more money, they left the store empty-handed.
Incidents such as this one motivated Reynolds to achieve and learn. Despite a learning disability, he excelled in hands-on lessons. When his family lost electricity when he was 12 years old — they could not afford improvements to re-establish a power connection after a storm took down power lines — they used PVC pipes on the roof to heat water.
And, a gardening project he started near the front door of his 688-square-foot 1928-built home helped foster his eagerness to learn, as well. When roof shingles fell and crushed his prized plants one day, Reynolds’ father agreed to give him a larger plot in the backyard. There, the youth grew radishes, cabbages and other vegetables.
“In elementary school, I did science experiments on (how to) best grow plants,” he says. “In high school, I studied horticulture.”
Decades later — and after earning degrees in chemistry and economics and a master’s degree in economics from the University of Florida — Reynolds sees the gardening opportunity at Bennett Park as a way to cultivate an interest in science and learning, while educating the children in his community about the food they eat.
“I want to teach (them) the value of the food they grow, and I like working with children,” he said. “People don’t know the value of the food they grow.”
“I enjoy teaching,” he said. “It’s a great feeling. Kids get excited to find frogs and spiders. They like learning and looking at nature. I’m just a teacher at heart.”
“Once I started growing tomatoes, (my father) liked them,” Reynolds says. “I kept asking for more and more space.
Follow your Dreams
Paul Reynolds said a song — Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” — had a major impact on his life when he was in elementary school.
“It made me realize that no matter what others say, I can achieve my dreams,” he said. “I truly believe that the children are the future, and I am doing my part to “Teach them well and let them lead the way.’”