Nursing Students Join Garden Project to Promote Healthy Food Choices

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Students from the Department of Nursing combined nature with nutrition this semester as they engaged with third, fourth and fifth grade students at San Rafael’s San Pedro Elementary School. The students, enrolled in professor Deborah Meshel’s community health rotation, were part of a pilot program to raise awareness about nutrition by using produce grown in a new outdoor classroom – a garden affectionately called “the farm.”
The four Dominican students - Jhenalynn Valete, Isabel Rafanan, Larry Bui and Maygan Brandt -  visited San Pedro School weekly throughout the fall semester to work alongside the elementary school students in the garden while engaging them in lessons about healthy food choices.
For Jhenalynn, the experience was a full-circle moment. Her own elementary school had a garden and she has happy memories of helping to plant and harvest the produce.
“We would also get taught about the importance of keeping a balanced diet,” she recalls. “I see myself in these children and I consider myself exceptionally fortunate to have the opportunity to educate them.”
It was a childhood experience – and the compassionate care she received from nurses – that also led Jhenalynn to study nursing.
“When I was in elementary school, I had frequent stomach issues that had me in and out of the hospital. I remember being so afraid of the doctors and the nurses and I hated medicine. However, the nurses were so kind and patient with me. They never forced me to take medicine and did not make me feel guilty for not being able to take it, instead they tried to give it to me in alternative ways, such as mixing it with apple juice. This small, yet huge gesture made my hospital stay comfortable and fostered a sense of trust in them, they were my advocates and became my safe people.”
When considering nursing programs, Jhenalynn says Dominican stood out because of the professor to student ratio.
“I came from a public high school where classes had 35-plus students. This limited the relationships I had with teachers, and I never felt like they got to know me,” she says. “At Dominican the classes are small, which allows me to feel closer to my professors. Also, the campus is insanely beautiful and is filled with so much greenery which is amazing to see between classes.”
After graduation, Jhenalynn hopes to work as a neonatal intensive care nurse. While working in the NICU has interested Jhenalynn since the beginning of nursing school, a recent rotation confirmed her choice.
“It was so rewarding to watch my patients grow from being 1 lb to 4 lbs within a span of a few weeks,” she recalls. “Their resilience never failed to amaze me. I was able to build relationships with their parents as well, which is something I truly value. Becoming a NICU nurse would allow me to become that safe person who advocates for their patients, especially since they cannot communicate themselves. Being able to be the parents’ rock through this hard time is what I strive to be.”
For Isabel, the work at San Pedro School combined her love of gardening and her desire to have an impact on the lives of others.
“I really enjoyed the community health class because it takes nursing away from the hospital and puts it into different settings.”
Isabel came to Dominican after attending Saint Mary’s High School in Stockton. Nursing, she says, has been a lifelong calling.
“Growing up I helped my dad take care of my grandpa who was very sickly. It was around junior year of high school when me and my dad were taking care of my grandpa during his final stage of cancer. I was inspired by how well my dad took care of my grandpa most diligently. It was then I knew I wanted to do nursing. I wanted to have an impact on people’s lives even if it’s just a small change.”
In addition to carrying a busy load of classes and rotations, Isabel serves as the cultural chair of Kapamilya, Dominican’s Filipino American organization on campus.
“I help educate people on the culture of the Philippines and the history of Filipino immigrants in America. Thanks to Kapamilya, I have found not only a place to connect with my culture and identity, but I also found some of my closest friends.”
Larry transferred to Dominican’s nursing program after working for several years in retail and attending City College of San Francisco. As with Isabel and Jhenalynn, the connection to nursing is personal.
“My decision to become a nurse started when my mother suffered a stroke and had to be hospitalized for an extended amount of time. It was during this time that I got to connect with a nurse that frequently cared for her,” he says. “The nurse told me she had also switched to nursing as a second career and that I was still young and should give it a shot, so I did.”
He came to Dominican on the recommendation of friends already enrolled at the university. The Marin location was another draw, as Larry enjoys hiking with friends in his spare time.
“I knew I wanted to go to school in the Bay, and the beautiful scenery and friends closed the deal,” he says. “I’ve been visiting Muir Woods and the Marin headlands recently, the closeness you can feel to nature is amazing up here.”
His career goals include becoming an ICU nurse. “Hopefully I get to stay in the Bay Area,” he says. “Down the line I would like to go back to school for a Master’s or Doctorate.”
Larry joined the program at San Pedro because he believes interventions geared toward children are particularly impactful in improving long term health outcomes.
“I also felt like it would have been amazing for me to have a program like this while back in elementary school, but since I didn’t, I would still like to provide it for other people. Working with the children has been an amazing learning experience between gaining their trust and building rapport, to having them respect me as an educator and hopefully leaving them with something they will value.”

Pictured: Nursing students Maygan Brandt and Larry Bui.

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