By Isadora Pennington
You are what you eat. It’s a familiar adage, and a cornerstone of the mission for SoulShine – an unorthodox preschool and after school program.
Located in the heart of Kirkwood, the property features rows of crops cultivated by local farmer Bremen James and maintained by homesteading after schoolers. In that small space, they are able to grow bananas, strawberries, ginger, and kiwis along with rotating seasonal vegetables.
On a recent visit to SoulShine, Andrea Zoppo, the homesteading instructor affectionately known as Ladybug, was out in the sun transferring plants to a new bed with a group of students. The kids were enjoying getting their hands dirty, learning about how to care for the plants, and then later how to rinse and prepare the veggies for consumption.
Founder and owner Shannon Smith said SoulShine is a nontraditional organization that offers daycare, preschool, after school classes, and seasonal camps with an emphasis on connection to the earth. The organization was founded 11 years ago by Smith and a group of dedicated parents who came together to bring the concept to reality. “The community started SoulShine,” Smith said.
At the time, Smith had been working at another local after school program, and when she decided to part ways and start her own school, a group of roughly 25 parents and their kids followed suit. Over the course of one winter break they came up with the name, found a space, and worked with the city to gain the appropriate permits. The outpouring of support enabled Smith to have a program ready almost immediately, and it was an instant boon to the success of the school.
Many of those first students have returned to work at the school as teenagers and on breaks from college. “The community here is what brings them, what draws them, what keeps them,” Smith said, indicating that the sense of togetherness is not only good for the students but also for the parents. “People forget how much they really need their neighbors.”
SoulShine also places a heavy emphasis on homesteading, with a sustainability-based learning program that encourages self-reliance and an understanding of conservation from a very early age. While the school is still beholden to meeting state standards and FDA regulations, their efforts have been to localize and streamline the process of farm-to-table food processing for their kids.
It was thanks to the school’s partnership with the nearby Lake Claire Land Trust that SoulShine became such a leading force in the community. In 2009, the school took up residence on the Land Trust, and from there it was a natural progression towards homesteading and sustainability education. Their programs began to incorporate home economics, farming, gardening, and even animal husbandry.
With the help of her husband, the aforementioned local farmer Bremen James, Smith that her newfound passions for understanding the origin of the food she feeds her students has become one of her biggest causes.
“I mean, it’s my soap box,” she said. “It really matters to me what they put inside themselves. We are what we eat, we are who we hang out with, everything is an extension of our soul.”
Smith, James and their two young children actually live in Rydal, Georgia where they have created SoulFood Family Farm. They are growing fruits and vegetables for the students, but also hope to house livestock for meat production in the future. Chefs and administrators of the school incorporate regular trips to the farm into their schedule.
Smith hopes to expand SoulShine, and not just in small ways. She is especially eager to purchase more land outside of Atlanta for growing food. With more farms and more output, Smith hopes to offer food to local schools as well as develop a SoulShine CSA program, a term that stands for Community Supported Agriculture. Subscribers would pay a monthly fee to receive a box of freshly harvested vegetables, in an effort to make eating local and healthy foods easier for parents outside of school hours as well.
SoulShine currently offers a preschool program called Sprouts for kids as young as six weeks to age 4, the homesteading afterschool program for ages 4 to 12, and summer camps for ages 4 to 12 during school breaks throughout the year. You can find out more information about the school and their programming at makeyoursoulshine.com.