When Texas-based philanthropist Richard Rainwater started brainstorming with his high-school friend Suzy Peacock on ways to help children in urban communities live a better life, they were determined to find a way to make a REAL difference. Together, they worked for more than a decade on a wide-range of projects involving children, education and the environment. From 1995-2003, they built a series of learning gardens, including the ones at Alice Carlson Applied Learning Center and Morningside Elementary in Fort Worth, Texas. 

Then in 2003, Suzy began working with teachers, principals, volunteers and a small staff to build learning gardens and develop teacher training and a support program to ensure their long-term success. During that time period, REAL School Gardens worked with 34 partner schools, almost all of which are still a part of our growing network. In 2007, after seeing impressive results, Richard and Suzy decided to create REAL School Gardens, a nonprofit designed to capitalize on the power of hands-on lessons and outdoor classrooms.

To help launch this new nonprofit, they hired Jeanne McCarty of Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots program, and she began working to expand the program and increase its impact. Jeanne and her team worked closely with seasoned educators to create the REAL School Gardens curriculum and our extensive teacher training program. She also worked to create our “Big Dig” events, done-in-a-day learning garden installation projects perfect for corporate and community volunteers. Sadly, in October of 2009, Suzy died of liver cancer, but she worked with REAL School Gardens right until the end, doing everything she could to ensure that the children we serve were getting excited and engaged in learning outdoors. To honor her memory, we created the Suzy Peacock Friendship Circle, a special donor group that joins together to help fund a learning garden every year. 

Today, Richard Rainwater and the Rainwater family continue to be among our strongest supporters. The Rainwater Charitable Foundation also funds groups such as Teach for America and the National School Leadership Network, each of which continues to work towards improving education in low-income communities. REAL School Gardens has experienced remarkable growth in the past five years. In addition to the Rainwater Charitable Foundation, we now work with more than 250 funding partners and 98 school partners. This broad support has funded years of training for 2,700 teachers and provided more than 51,000 students with a REAL school garden so they have a place to learn and grow. 

REAL School Gardens is currently working to expand its impact to new regions nation-wide.  School districts interested in partnering with REAL School Gardens should email Jeanne McCarty.

REAL School Gardens’ accomplishments are made possible by the amazing staff members, educators and organizations who’ve helped us come so far. We’d like to take a moment to recognize: 

Our first staff members and founding volunteers:

  • Kelly Garrett, founding and current member of our board; 
  • Pat Harrison, VP and Director of Education at BRIT; 
  • Stacey Hodge, who proposed the founding of REAL School Gardens after designing the garden at Sam Rosen Elementary; 
  • Terri McGuire, who did all the heavy lifting getting us organized for growth; 
  • Sandy Neumann, an organizational consultant who helped us grow as a team; 
  • Charlotte Sassman, a former teacher who helped us find our voice; 
  • Eric Vanderbeck, a.k.a the incredible Mr. V, who continues with us to this day, thrilling children with the wonders of nature and the outdoors. 

 The Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT) – A founding organizational partner, BRIT has been a REAL School Gardens’ supporter for years and currently provides our North Texas region with rent-free space in their new Platinum LEED Certified building in Fort Worth, Texas. BRIT educators also work with us on our Smart Potatoes program. 

Our local ACORNS board – The principals, teachers, and community leaders – who helped develop this great program.