Daniel Coers is 12 years old and in the seventh grade. He wants to be a firefighter when he grows up. He has a typical love/hate relationship with his three sisters. He's homeschooled by his mom Amanda. And he's a pioneer in a new intern program at the Brownwood Area Community Garden.

Education is a key part of the Community Garden's mission statement, and the new intern program is the perfect venue to teach young students applied science, the value of hard work, and the importance of philanthropy.

For the last six weeks, Daniel has spent part of every Monday at the Community Garden, working with and learning from garden coordinator Daniel Graham. The two Daniels work side by side, planting and harvesting, composting and mulching, and each task is part of the day's lesson. And he nibbles while he works.

"This is the first time I've had a carrot right out of the ground," he says. "We pick them and wash them, and then I eat one. It tastes a lot better than the carrots from the grocery store." Cherry tomatoes are his favorites, he says, especially the orange heirloom Sun Gold variety being harvested right now.

Daniel considers nibbling part of his job description and class curriculum. He calls it "quality control" since the Community Garden's primary mission is to provide fresh produce year round to area food pantries. As soon as the produce is harvested and weighed, he and Graham tote it in buckets, boxes and sometime a wheelbarrow to the Salvation Army's Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen, where it's often part of Monday's lunch.

Daniel's mom, Amanda Coers, is delighted with the Garden's intern program and the effect it's had on her son.

"This has been an amazing outlet for Daniel. He homeschools with me and his sisters, all these girls, and it's wonderful for a 12-year old guy to get to be outside, doing hard physical labor and getting dirty," she said. "And he's learning so much in the process."

She likes the fact that her son comes home from the Garden with homework, such as vocabulary words (like "propagation") to learn and gardening concepts (like "vermiculture") to research.

"Mr. Graham has enriched his education in ways that we never could have," Amanda Coers said. "He's been a great mentor."

Graham uses the Garden's intern program as an opportunity to teach sustainable horticultural practices, using only natural fertilizers and insect control methods. Sometimes lessons cover more than just planting things. Graham also challenges Daniel to think of gardening in wider terms, such as the controversial issue of genetically modified food crops, or the importance of preserving heirloom seed varieties to maintain worldwide biodiversity.

Amanda Coers appreciates the Garden's philanthropic mission to feed the hungry, and she sees the effect it has on her son.

"Daniel can see that someone gets a meal because of his hard work, and that does a lot to build character."

Community service is actually part of Amanda's own homeschool curriculum. She designates Mondays as "Me-Less" days and each of her children is encouraged to give their time and energy to help someone else. Her two older daughters volunteer at Good Samaritan Ministries, and the whole family works through their church to help area food pantries.

Amanda Coers said the Garden intern program has also influenced their home life.

"We try to eat healthy at home. It's so much easier when kids have first-hand experience at putting healthy food on the table," she said. "Kids need to know where food comes from."

And Daniel brings his work home with him. "We have a pot of Thai basil growing in the window. Daniel harvested the basil at the Garden, saved the seeds, and planted them," according to his mom. "He takes a lot of pride in that pot of basil, and he knows how to take care of it."

As for Daniel, he's looking forward to working and learning at the Garden throughout this school year, and beyond. He doesn't mind cold weather and appreciates the fact that the Garden continues to grow and produce through the winter.

And he plans to have a home garden until he leaves for college. He's using compost to build his backyard soil at home and plans to plant carrots and okra from seed saved from the Garden. He's inspired by the wide assortment of ornamental gourds that help shade the Garden's arbor and wants to plant his own.

"I want to learn to clean them and shape them so they can be used for spoons and birdhouses and stuff. I think that's really cool," he says. But there are aspects of his Garden class that he doesn't like.

"I hate harvesting okra. It itches like crazy."

The Brownwood Area Community Garden intern program is open to students and educators of all levels. Intern programs can be scheduled for weekdays, evenings or weekends, and classroom teachers can include the Garden in their curriculum by adopting a bed over the course of the school year. The program is also open to Scouts working on horticultural badges or community service requirements.

For further information on the Community Garden intern program, call (325) 641-9029 or (325) 784-8453. ch as composting and mulching, as well as the importance of community service.