During Mental Health Awareness Month, community comes together to create serenity garden at Alta Vista High School

By Canopy Team on May 16, 2024

Canopy, Alta Vista High School students, and Mentor Tutor Connection plant 9 trees at the school's campus to start a serenity garden

Canopy and Alta Vista High School (AVHS) students planted nine trees at the alternative school’s campus on May 16 as part of a community-led effort to create a serenity garden that will help students and teachers alike improve both their physical and mental well being. 

With help from Canopy staff, planting leaders, and Mentor Tutor Connection volunteers, 30 students planted one valley oak, two silver lindens, and six pacific wax myrtles as part of a greater effort that will eventually include a fountain, benches, paths and swings. Planted during Mental Health Awareness Month, the AVHS staff hope the space will help foster an outdoor escape that supports student wellbeing and connection. 

“We’re excited about AV serenity garden not only because we’ll have a beautiful outdoor wellness space but it also really allows our students to collaborate with volunteers in the community,” said AVHS Principal Suzanne Woolfolk at the tree planting.

The vision for the serenity garden came together more than a year ago when school and Mountain View community members came together to find a purpose to a section of campus in dire need of trees and additional green spaces. Mary Dateo, a Canopy board member who runs a landscape design business that specializes in sustainable residential landscapes, and Kammy Lo, a former Canopy board member, met with AVHS staff and students to discuss options for campus greening. 

While the AVHS campus has some greenery, the back of the campus where students spend much of their time has few trees, limiting the outdoor spaces where students can enjoy shade from the sun. In addition to a lack of green space, the campus experiences noise and air pollution from the neighboring Highway 85, making it challenging for students to relax and safely spend time outside. 

Canopy and AVHS knew the inclusion of student voices in the planning and implementation of a campus greening project would be crucial to ensure that the greening project would benefit and support the AVHS student needs. When Canopy and AVHS reached out for student input, AVHS students Monty Dixon and Alessandra Crannell proposed the plan for the serenity garden.

“Me and my friend Alessandra came up with the plan for the serenity garden because at lunch, we didn’t have a place to sit. It was just like a couple of metal chairs that would get super hot and super cold really easily,” said Monty, holding the student-drawn plan for the serenity garden. “[The chairs] are also right next to the edge of campus where the highway was always super loud.”

A serenity garden could address these issues by providing an outdoor space where students can relax and enjoy the environmental benefits of trees and green space. Mature trees can provide shade for students and help cool the campus temperature through the process of evapotranspiration. Trees can also help mitigate noise and air pollution from Highway 85 by deflecting and absorbing sound waves and filtering particulate matter through their leaves.

Most importantly, trees and green space can help improve the mental health and psychological wellbeing of AVHS students. Research shows that green spaces on or near school campuses are positively associated with restored attention capacity, decreased stress levels (Li & Sullivan, 2016), and reduced mental fatigue and aggression (Schulman & Peters, 2008). In fact, trees release chemicals called phytoncides that have been found to reduce stress hormone levels in humans when inhaled. Furthermore, green spaces can provide a favorable space for students to socialize and enhance their sense of place on campus. 

“Alta Vista is great for learning and academics but students also need mental breaks and a space to focus on their wellness. Wellness is the most important building aspect of school and life,” said Alessandra. “This serenity garden encapsulates an area to be able to relax and reflect…some students might not have this outside of school.”

“We want students to be able to de-escalate, to self regulate, and to enjoy and destress in the outdoors,” said Alba Garza, AVHS Community Resources Coordinator, as she described the vision for the garden.

With the support of the greater Midpeninsula community, Canopy and AVHS were able to turn the serenity garden vision into reality. Canopy and AVHS received a community grant from Los Altos Mountain View Community Foundation and free trees from Google to plant at the AVHS campus. Mentor Tutor Connection (MTC), a local organization that mentors AVHS students, also supported the project by assisting in the planting of the trees.

The tree planting was a success, with 30 students getting hands-on experience with the tree planting process: loosening the root balls, placing the trees in the ground, building a soil berm, staking and tying the trees, adding mulch, and watering the trees. Planting the trees not only exposed the students to the practice of urban forestry and expanded their tree knowledge, but allowed the students to work and connect with their peers, mentors at MTC, and AVHS staff.

Canopy staff and AVHS students planting a pacific wax myrtle

“We’re all excited to watch the once barren part of campus transform into a wellness space that students and teachers alike can enjoy and take pride in,” said JP Renaud, Canopy’s executive director. “The tree planting and serenity garden serves as a testament to what can be accomplished when our Midpeninsula community works together and takes action.” 

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