Students from St. Catherine-St. Lucy School in Oak Park water the strawberry plants in their newly installed garden beds, which were funded by a grant through the Albrecht-Poss Family Foundation (photo submitted).

Growing up, Dailela Williams thought worms were yucky. She would squirm at the sight of their soft, pink bodies burrowing into the soil.

Williams, now an adult, found herself holding onto those childish feelings, as she and her young students recently watched dozens of composting worms find their way through pounds of dirt, making a home out of a newly built garden bed.

“It’s like oh my god!” exclaimed Williams, laughing, her voice flickering from excitement.

Williams is the co-founder of Future Leaders’ Learning Center,  6139 W. North Ave. in Oak Park, and her daycare center was one of 11 early childhood programs selected for a grant project by the Collaboration for Early Childhood.

The collaboration, an Oak Park-based nonprofit that works to provide resources for families and children under 5 years old, received an $8,120 grant from the Albrecht-Poss Family Foundation to install raised garden beds at several local daycare centers and schools. The funding offered centers and schools supplies such as soil, composting pods and worms, as well as additional money to purchase seeds and plants.

The River Forest Community Center, Concordia University Early Childhood Education Center, Oak Park and River Forest Day Nursery and St. Catherine-St. Lucy School are just a few of the other recipients. A full list of the grant recipients can be found on the collaboration’s site at  

The raised beds – which are 8 feet by 4 feet and made out of cedarwood – were installed last month. The collaboration partnered with other local businesses and organizations such as The Backyard Farmer, Deep Roots Project and Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm to supply the materials.

The idea behind the project was simple: it’s about giving children the chance to learn through gardening, said Rebecca Streit, chair of the collaboration’s board of directors. Planting allows children to see the circle of life before their eyes, grabbing onto lessons beyond science.

“There’s just a really, really rich foundation for just all kinds of stuff,” Streit said, adding that there are so many questions that can crop up from planting such as what food do you like to eat? Or what kind of flowers attract pollinating insects? “It’s a really great way to be sneaky about instruction.”

Those thoughts rang true for Williams, who said some of the families don’t have access to green spaces because they live in apartment buildings. For Williams, having this garden bed within her reach means she is now able to give her students a real hands-on experience. They can play with the dirt, see all the worms sliding in and out of the soil and see their seedlings grow, she said.

Gingi Lahera, teacher and creative director at the Arts Language Music Alliance in Forest Park, is another one of the collaboration’s grant recipients. Lahera, who converted a part of her home into a multi-purpose classroom, sees her garden bed as a stepping stone to create this “natural paradise” for her and her students. 

Ever since it was placed, Lahera said she started hanging outside more, breaking apart clumps of dirt she saw in planting beds and around her backyard. She let her imagination run wild, thinking of the types of flowers and plants she wanted in her space, including lilacs, hydrangeas and maybe even a fruit tree.

Over at the Future Leaders’ Learning Center, Williams’ students have already picked out some marigolds and morning glories for their garden. They were drawn to the flowers’ bright colors, the hues of yellow and blues popping from the bed, she said.

“It means a lot,” Williams said about being part of the grant initiative. “Not only are they learning, but I’m learning how to garden as well. I’m learning so much about the work [to grow the plants], how important the soil is for things to grow. … It means the world to me that they’re getting that experience.”  

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