Outdoor classroom rebuilt after Fiona becomes tribute to late teacher

Students Gracie Meerburg and Mason Doughart pose next to the medicine wheel garden at Vernon River Consolidated School.   (Ken Linton/CBC - image credit)
Students Gracie Meerburg and Mason Doughart pose next to the medicine wheel garden at Vernon River Consolidated School. (Ken Linton/CBC - image credit)

Kindergarten teacher Linda Roach was known for her love of the outdoors and for being active.

When the outdoor classroom at Vernon River Consolidated School in eastern Prince Edward Island was destroyed by falling trees during post-tropical storm Fiona in 2022, Roach was determined to rebuild it.

She had helped to create the original classroom, so along with physical education teacher Sarah Adams, she put together a proposal and the school received provincial funding.

"We really felt the loss of this classroom after Fiona had taken down lots of trees, and we weren't using this space," Adams said.

Linda Roach was a big fan of the outdoors. She was a runner, as well as a trapper and hunter.
Linda Roach was a big fan of the outdoors. She was a runner, as well as a trapper and hunter.

Linda Roach was a big fan of the outdoors. She was an avid runner, as well as a trapper and hunter. (Submitted by Sarah Adams)

"Our kids love being outside. We've got kids who build forts. They climb trees. They live for the outdoors," Adams said. "We really wanted to create kind of a designated space that was purposeful, where teachers could take children outside to really engage in some hands-on experiential learning opportunities."

But Roach passed away in December 2023, before the project could be carried out, leaving colleagues, students and local families to mourn her loss.

"Trying to take it on, and keep her vision and my vision together without her here, has been quite difficult," Adams said.

"But we've had so many people step up and support that. So I think she'd be proud."

Value of the outdoors

Six months after Roach's death, the school and the entire community have rallied to finish the outdoor classroom.

And it has blossomed into an even bigger project, with a community garden, medicine wheel garden, and more.

Principal Dave Wood and phys ed teacher Sarah Adams sit on the wooden bench built in honour of Linda Roach in the outdoor classroom.
Principal Dave Wood and phys ed teacher Sarah Adams sit on the wooden bench built in honour of Linda Roach in the outdoor classroom.

Principal Dave Wood and physical education teacher Sarah Adams sit on the wooden bench in the outdoor classroom that was built in memory of Linda Roach. (Ken Linton/CBC)

"Our project really kind of took on a new life. A lot of people from the community... were reaching out, wanting to help out," said principal Dave Wood. "Our home and school [association] joined in. People from the community have joined in. We've gotten great support."

He said being out in the fresh air was important to Roach, who had training as a hunter and trapper.

"She felt connecting with outside was really important — learning about the environment, learning about all the world around us," Wood said.

"It was kind of neat for a kindergarten teacher to really want to expose children to that. She wanted to get away from the screens and she wanted the kids to be outside and learning and playing."

Potato farmer Ben Visser gave students a lesson in how to plant potatoes in the community garden at Vernon River Consolidated School.
Potato farmer Ben Visser gave students a lesson in how to plant potatoes in the community garden at Vernon River Consolidated School.

Potato farmer Ben Visser gives students a lesson in how to plant potatoes in the community garden at Vernon River Consolidated School. (Ken Linton/CBC)

Wood said the community garden is a new addition to the outdoor project, and one that the community is embracing.

"We're trying to bring the community back in after COVID, and the schools were shut down, and people didn't feel like they were welcome to come into the schools," Wood said.

"We're trying to open the doors, get people to feel welcome and build that trust, build that welcoming atmosphere."

Grieving and healing

As the school's only kindergarten teacher, Roach would have had nearly every student now at the school in her classroom, making her loss even more significant.

That's why there is a bench in the outdoor classroom with her name on it.

"I think it's gone a way toward some of the healing, and some of the grieving, and we just love that we've kind of created a legacy for her," Sarah Adams said.

The new outdoor classroom includes some of the trees that were destroyed by Fiona, turned into benches and stumps for seats.
The new outdoor classroom includes some of the trees that were destroyed by Fiona, turned into benches and stumps for seats.

The new outdoor classroom includes remnants of some of the trees that were destroyed by Fiona, turned into benches and stumps for seats. (Ken Linton/CBC)

"This provides a space for reflection, a place where they could think about their teacher that we all loved so much — maybe have a closer connection with her because they can come to this space, and they know that this is somewhere she would have loved to be," Adams said.

We want to remember her, and the wonderful life that she lived. She was a really great person.
— Ali Kenny

The bench in particular provides "a chance to sit down and think about her and maybe help heal a little bit," she said.

All of the students painted a rock to line one of the gardens.
All of the students painted a rock to line one of the gardens.

All of the students painted their own designs on rocks like these to help line one of the gardens. (Ken Linton/CBC)

Students of all ages have been involved in creating the outdoor classroom, as well as making signs for trees and animals and planting the gardens.

"I felt like it was going to be a really good project, and a great way to express ourselves, and just make a great space for other classes to enjoy," said Grade 6 student Lyric O'Brien.

Vernon River students Jack Bastedo and Landon Lea working on a wooden structure which is part of the outdoor classroom area.
Vernon River students Jack Bastedo and Landon Lea working on a wooden structure which is part of the outdoor classroom area.

Vernon River students Jack Bastedo and Landon Lea working on a wooden structure that's part of the outdoor classroom area. (Ken Linton/CBC)

"It is a way to express ourselves in the garden and we can help out the community by giving back," said Grade 6 student Ali Kenny.

She also said the garden and classroom being in memory of the kindergarten teacher is special to everyone.

"We want to remember her, and the wonderful life that she lived. She was a really great person."