Esther Kang

Back to the Roots: Founder of Valmonte Children’s Garden digs deep to find community on the Hill

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Diana Heffernan. Photo by Esther Kang

Diana Heffernan. Photo by Esther Kang

Sitting out on the lush, foliaged terrace at Terranea Resort in Palos Verdes, Diana Heffernan-Schrader looks at home. Despite the cool morning breeze, she insisted we sit outside.

“This is how we were meant to be,” she says. “We evolved from nature and we belong in nature. To fight it is going against the basic instinct of who you are.”

Donning a vibrant floral dress and a straw cowboy hat, the South Bay native would explain that her early childhood spent on the Kwajalein atoll in the Pacific had emparted a deep sense of appreciation and awareness for nature.

Then life happened: After graduating from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in economics, she threw herself into her career managing multi-million dollar portfolio assets in Beverly Hills. While she loved her job, she spent most of her time inside an office staring at a computer screen.

Amid her days working around the clock, a friend urged Heffernan-Schrader, who at the time lived on The Strand in Hermosa, to pick up a hobby. She brought her a rose bush and some clippers. It was like an addiction, Heffernan-Schrader recalls.

“When I experienced that, it rejuvenated me. I wanted more of it,” she says. “So the next thing I know I had this back patio with all potted plants — it was a little oasis on The Strand.”

This love affair marked her slow but sure return to wildlife. Her family’s home in Palos Verdes today has a large yard where she recently began gardening again. Her enthusiasm and expertise for gardening has provided a portal into her community, so to speak. She now acts as the go-to “garden chair,” bridging schools and various community groups to share resources and benefits.

It all started three years ago, when Heffernan-Schrader spotted a patch of dirt at the driveway of her daughter’s preschool, Valmonte Early Learning Academy. At the time she was a fresh-faced mother who didn’t know many people in the community. But the patch she observed had great potential as a garden, so she took the idea and ran with it.

With the same fervor that once drove her professionally, she rallied support from fellow parents, students, teachers, administrators and the community, partnering with nonprofit Sustainable Palos Verdes Schools Foundation.

Shirley Resich, who was Valmonte’s principal for 12 years before retiring last June, said Heffernan-Schrader’s passion for the project, paired with her knowledge about sustainability, environmental impact and the preschool curriculum, translated to an opportunity she couldn’t refuse.

“Diana is one of those people who has boundless energy,” Resich says. “People do not say no to her. She’s willing to do the research, the legwork, the fundraising — she’s a one-man show. It was an incredible experience to transform that piece of the campus to what it’s become today.”

Today, the Valmonte Children’s Garden, which the Silver Spur Garden Club last month awarded the Garden of the Season, is thriving. The 2,000 sq. ft. patch grows seasonal fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers and houses a large bird and butterfly habitat area. It extends out to a one-acre farm area, added in 2012, where the district’s special needs young adults visit weekly to practice life development skills.

Kids from the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District enjoy the fruits — and vegetables — of their labor in their school garden. Photos courtesy of Diane Heffernan-Schrader

Kids from the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District enjoy the fruits — and vegetables — of their labor in their school garden. Photos courtesy of Diane Heffernan-Schrader

“We now have something that greets everyone who drives in, and it’s a special place for kids,” Heffernan-Schrader says. “When they get out of class they frolic in the garden looking for insects. They run around smelling things and touching things.”

Thanks to her vision, word of “edible education” is undeniably spreading on the Hill. Today, seven of Palos Verdes Unified School District’s 10 elementary schools have a sustainable garden program in place. Many more have sought advice from Heffernan-Schrader and her team, with plans to kick off their own programs. Palos Verdes High School, Palos Verdes Intermediate and Chadwick School are among them. They’ve also partnered with EnrichLA, a community nonprofit that builds edible gardens in L.A.’s low-income schools.

“It’s really just about knowing your neighbors,” she says, “the neighbors in all the different businesses and nonprofits and for-profits that exist in your community. All those people who keep their doors open for you, to be a part of their world and their lives … They’re watching out for you, watching out for your kids and you’re watching out for each other.”

Her deep, effective involvement in the community did not go unnoticed by the Palos Verdes Education Foundation, where she is serving her first year on the board. With her daughters now ages 4 and 6, she wants to be a voice for the oft-overlooked contingent of younger parents in the community.

“We have the opportunity to shape the future for our children,” she says. “The problem’s never with the kids. Adults are very set in the way they view how something should be taught. We need to be more open-minded about experiencing education where it’s fun because it should be and it could be.” PEN


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