While the power may have been out on the morning of Oct. 24, class was still in session at Hazel Fischer Elementary School in White Pines.
It was the perfect day for an outdoor activity, and luckily, one had been organized by local resident Rhonda Lema.
At 8 a.m., Lema and her friend Erin O’Brien put the finishing touches on a free pumpkin patch for the kids next to the Independence Hall parking lot on the edge of the school grounds. Countless pumpkins covered the ground amid bales of hay, stalks of corn and Halloween decorations. Wooden cutouts of a black cat, a pumpkin carriage and several scarecrows surrounded the area, while tombstones marked with names like “Ben Better” and “Spooky Joe” were spread out among the pumpkins.
Lema decided to organize the pumpkin patch when she realized that the elementary school kids wouldn’t have the opportunity to visit one this year. She approached the principal about the idea several weeks ago, and was told that she would need at least 177 pumpkins, one for each student. She immediately set about organizing, printing flyers and contacting local businesses and individuals.
Not only did Lema secure one pumpkin for every student, she was able to collect close to 500 pumpkins, donated by people as close by as White Pines and as far away as Manteca. Lema said that siblings and other community members were invited to come and pick up any leftover pumpkins from the patch.
With help from her husband, Brandon, and O’Brien, Lema created all of the decorations in the pumpkin patch herself.
Both Lema and O’Brien work at Bear Valley Mountain Resort, where they have organized similar activities in the past.
“We have put on a few festivals. We’ve done Easter and Christmas together,” Lema said. “I’m the super festive one around here. I always decorate all of White Pines all the time for everything.”
The decorations had been installed the day before, while the pumpkins were set out earlier that morning to protect them from a group of bears that had recently been seen in the area.
“I think that the truck is my favorite part. I’m amazed at all of the companies that donated,” O’Brien said.
At the front of the patch, a cutout of a red pickup truck displayed the names of everyone who contributed to the project, including Big Trees Market, Napa Auto Parts, Save Mart, Van Groningen and Sons, Bret Harte FFA and Ebbetts Pass Lumber.
“We wrote all the names last night in the dark with headlights,” Lema said, laughing. “It’s turned out perfect, because we don’t have electricity; and what better place to be than outside in a pumpkin patch today?”
A chorus of excited chatter grew in volume as the first group of children, a kindergarten class, made its way up the hill from the school.
The kids lined up behind their teacher Teglene Ryan at the entrance to the patch. On a signal from Ryan, they poured into the area, shouting, laughing and squealing excitedly.
“Wow, look at that one,” one child said.
“I’ve got the biggest pumpkin,” another said triumphantly.
“That’s a great one,” Ryan said.
After picking their pumpkins, the children had their names written on them by teachers and parent volunteers. Many posed for pictures, proudly holding their pumpkin prizes.
When every student had chosen a pumpkin, the group stood behind the red pickup cutout for a picture.
“One, two, three – big pumpkin smiles,” a parent volunteer said. “Say, ‘Pumpkin!’”
“Pumpkin,” the kids shouted in unison.
Afterward, the children were led single-file over to a gazebo for apples donated by Big Trees Market and cookies baked with the help of Lema in the school cafeteria.
“It’s great that our pumpkin patch day is also a power-outage day, because it gives us an additional outside activity to do,” Ryan said. “They are very excited. I see lots of smiles. We have never had a pumpkin patch at school like this in the past.”
Ryan said that several classes had to relocate for the day because their classrooms didn’t have windows to let in light.
“We’re just pretending we’re pioneers,” she said, laughing. “The kids are doing great. We’ve got really good attendance, too. I only have two kids out.”
One kindergartener approached Ryan with a serious expression on his face.
“May I have another cookie?” he asked.
“Just one cookie, dear,” Ryan said.
As a fifth-grade class approached, the kindergarteners filed back to their classroom, each holding a pumpkin in their arms. The fifth-graders descended on the patch, picked pumpkins, paused for photos and retired to the gazebo for treats.
“Thank you, Ms. Rhonda,” they said in unison before walking back down the hill with their pumpkins to make way for the next class.
“That’s what makes it worth it right there,” O’Brien said. “That brought tears to my eyes.”
“It puts a smile on their face, and it’s all worth it,” Lema said.