Belarus students see nature firsthand at local farm

News-DemocratJuly 10, 2013 

Traipsing through the wetlands at Henry White Research Farm near Millstadt, Belleville East biology teacher Norm Dahm pointed out the Queen Anne's lace flowers to teens from Belarus and Belleville West and East high schools.

"Queen Anne's Lace is considered native, but its actually from England," Dahm told the students.

The students -- many wearing white T-shirts that read "Belleville loves Belarus" -- picked the flowers including Russian Thistle as they walked around the trail that circles two manmade ponds on the farm.

The visit was part of a Youth Leadership Program, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, to promote urban gardening and sustainable agriculture. Fourteen Belarus students are visiting Belleville over a two-week period. They will be here until July 21.

Coordinator of the Youth Leadership Program is Cyndi Oberle-Dahm, a teacher at Belleville West. Oberle-Dahm is married to Norm Dahm.

Dahm lead the tour because he has extensive knowledge of the area around the research farm -- he lived there as a child.

He talked to the students about bees and how they make honey. "Bees take in nectar then throw it up and that's the honey," he said. The farm has several beehives on site.

Dahm pointed out a red-winged blackbird. He explained that Illinois is part of the Mississippi flyway zone, because migratory birds fly along the Mississippi River for easy access to a water source.

As he was walking down the trail, Dahm bent down and picked a four-leaf clover and handed it to one of the students from Belarus, who excitedly took it.

"The way to find a four-leaf clover is to only look for four-leaf clovers," Dahm said.

As the students walked through wet grass in drizzling rain, Oberle-Dahm said, "getting out into nature is good for these kids -- the American kids, too."

The goal of the program is to teach the students gardening skills and leadership training. "The hope is for them to create a community garden when they go home," Oberle-Dahm said. "We want to give them the skills to start something and sustain it."

The Youth Leadership Program kicked off last week when five Belleville West students traveled to Chicago to meet students from two other American high schools as well as 40 Belarussians. Following five days in Chicago, the Belleville West students returned home and 14 teens from Belarus came to Belleville.

These experiences mark the first time the Belarus students visited the United States, according to Oberle-Dahm.

Alyona Dzemidovich, 15, of Belarus said she's enjoying her time in America. "It's been a great experience communicating with people who know about gardening and how people get money from it," she said.

Alyona said she had "great fun spending time in Chicago" including visiting museums and different shopping areas.

Her host family also took her to a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game, and Alyona said she got an autographed baseball from a well-known player though she didn't remember his name.

"It's really exciting for me to be here," Alyona said. "It's a great chance to get good experience and have fun this summer."

Alyona is staying with Belleville West senior Katie Obst, 17, and her family. "It's been a really good experience," Katie said of having Alyona stay with her.

Yuilya Biardouskaya, 16, of Belarus said she likes America so much she wants to move here. "I'd like to live here and stay here," she said. "I like America, the whole country. I think all the things we are doing are fun."

The students from Belarus attend what's called a Gymnasium there, which is a college preparatory program.

Oberle-Dahm described the students selected for the Youth Leadership Program as "pretty awesome." All the students were chosen based on their merit, she said.

Following the excursion to Henry White Research Farm, the students ate a staple in America -- pizza -- and then got physical at Kings Point doing tennis and yoga clinics.

Next week, the students will visit Earth Dance Farm in St. Louis, the St. Louis Composting Facility in Belleville and Gateway Greening in St. Louis before heading back to their home country.

Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 618-239-2562 or jforsythe1@bnd.com.

Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 618-239-2562 or jforsythe1@bnd.com.

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