LUMBERTON — Eagle Scout candidate Larson Jenkins has deeply-set roots in the Bear Garden at Tanglewood Elementary School. Just 4 years old when he planted his first seeds of service in the garden, he recently returned as a teenager to give his old learning ground some overdue attention.
In 2004, Tina Jenkins took her young son along to help on a service project at the school with the Lumberton Junior Service League. To this day, the tree they planted next to the alphabet fence line — P for pussy willow — still stands, offering shade to anyone who might rest on the bench beneath its leafy branches.
The next year, he began as a kindergartner at Tanglewood. Principal Joanna Hunt, who was then the assistant principal, remembered Jenkins as a “sweet boy.”
The Jenkins family now lives in Moore County, but makes the weekly drive to Lumberton so Larson can finish his scouting journey with Cape Fear Council Troop 301 of the Boy Scouts of America.
Hunt said Larson contacted her about a year ago after seeing the “fence looked bad, and needed repair and paint.”
Standing by the picket fence last week, Larson pointed to a glass door near the garden, and recalled his time as a first-grade student at the school. Often, after completing a lesson with teacher Lynn Noble, students would walk the maze and hang out in the garden.
“I don’t think anybody does that anymore,” he said.
Once a vibrant blue, the alphabet fence had weathered to a faded gray. Some of the letters were missing or broken. Many of the pickets were rotten or broken, or had fallen off the fence.
“A lot of the top pieces of the pickets were just gone,” Larson said.
Weeds and grass stood tall. Briar vines had run wild, overflowing garden beds and climbing the fence to obscure such garden delights as a whimsically-painted shed, a metal sculpture of a praying mantis, a hopscotch path, Dr. Seuss hats and bird feeders. Even spiders once had a special place in the garden.
A frame donated by Tina Jenkins was meant to “encourage spiders to build in it, so (students) could see the garden spiders.”
Larson believes the outdoor classroom fell into such disrepair because so much of students’ learning is now on computers.
When the fence was originally constructed, plants were placed by their corresponding letters. Many of those slots are now vacant.
Larson said he approached his Eagle Scout project with a measure of caution, mostly due to the thorny overgrowth and the amount of work the long-neglected fence required.
However, armed with determination and donations from Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse and fortified with snacks, Gatorade and water from Lowe’s Foods, Larson and a crew of family and friends tamed the vines and repaired and painted the fence.
Even the wire bear sculptures were patched up — with zip ties.
Volunteers included his parents, Tina and Tony Jenkins, a former member of the Board of Education; his grandparents, Candy and John Atkinson; and friends Lacey Malinsky, Jack Cherichella, John and Greg Stanley, Ron King and his mom, Betty, and Dominic Dent.
Larson hopes their efforts will inspire others to invest in and visit the Tanglewood treasure. And he’s hopeful that students will be excited and curious about the Bear Garden. There is still work to be done, he said, and continuous maintenance is required to keep the Bear Garden looking its best. There is also the unresolved matter of the colorful alphabet letters that need companion plants.
“I’m glad I did it,” Larson said. “I’m just proud of how it looks.”
The school’s principal is proud of it — and him.
“I’m just thrilled that he wanted to give back to his elementary school,” Hunt said. “He did a great job.”
Originally a vibrant blue, the alphabet fence that surrounds the Bear Garden at Tanglewood Elementary School was almost a faded grey and many pickets were rotten, broken or had fallen off.
Behind Larson Jenkins, left, and mom Tina is the pussy willow tree they planted in the Bear Garden at Tanglewood Elementary School when Larson was 4 years old. Along with the help of friends, Larson renovated the alphabet fence and cleaned out the flower beds for his Eagle Scout project.
Tina and Larson Jenkins dig a hole near the letter P to plant a pussy willow tree in the Bear Garden at Tanglewood Elementary School in 2004.