AlumniBower School of Music & the ArtsCollege of Education

Education major finds most meaningful lessons take root in the garden

Cecelia Morales, Class of 2017

Cecelia Morales’ career blooms from a seed planted freshman year. A trip to the campus Food Forest to cheer up her visiting brother has grown into her position as the new organic garden manager at Shangri-La Springs in Bonita Springs, a 1921 hotel and spa being renovated as a destination for weddings, dining and fitness. The garden will support Harvest, a farm-to-table restaurant opening this year.

The Elementary Education major happened to visit the Food Forest, a student-run garden of edible plants available to all, during a meeting of the Food Foresters. “They gave us a tour and were so welcoming,” she said, noting many impressionable moments of that visit, including one with the late John Herman, assistant professor of biology. “He stuck his whole arm into a snake hole and pulled out an indigo snake. It was a wild, ‘wow’ kind of place.”

Morales found herself drawn back to the Food Forest to taste fruits and plants, attend meetings and try Meatless Mondays. Eventually, Jim Wohlpart, then dean of Undergraduate Studies and champion of the forest, asked Morales if she would like a job there as the service learning coordinator.

“It’s a passion that grew. From the Food Forest to my personal garden, I guess it was always there. I’ve always loved plants.

“It’s a passion that grew,” she says. “From the Food Forest to my personal garden, I guess it was always there. I’ve always loved plants.”

She continued her education classes but added courses for Permaculture certification as her role in the Food Forest thrived. Educational internships helped her realize that while she loved working with kids, she didn’t love being inside. “Teaching inside is not my favorite place to teach,” she says, adding she considered focusing on environmental education, but was worried only a small percentage of the curriculum would allow her to be outside.

As she cultivated her passion in the Food Forest, she added her own garden at home, and got a weekend job working with other Food Forest alumni at FruitScapes on Pine Island, where she still helps when needed.

Gardening keeps her a student. She is learning about working with the kitchen, and how the cycle of plant production will impact menus. The Food Forest is primarily perennial plants, and much of the Shangri-La Springs garden is annuals. She looks forward to sharing what she learns in her outdoor “classroom.”

“I like working with children and the service aspect of giving back and helping children reach their full potential,” she says. “I didn’t feel like I was doing that. I do feel like I’m giving back with a job like this. I love getting people passionate about growing their own food. I love getting to share my experiences in the garden.”