Martha Jenkins was named the Long Beach Unified School District's classified employee of the year late last month. Photo courtesy of LBUSD

If you’re walking around Cabrillo High School next to the 500 building near Santa Fe Avenue, you’ll happen upon a flourishing garden full of herbs, vegetables and much more.

This is the work of Martha Jenkins, who has gotten her hands dirty in the best way possible to improve her campus and the lives of her special education students.

After COVID-19, Jenkins took it upon herself to expand her duties as an instructional aide to include “gardener extraordinaire.” Now she has her special education students join her in tending the garden while learning about what makes things grow.

“She has really gone above and beyond her duties,” Cabrillo Assistant Principal George Walton said of Jenkins. “She came in on her personal time to help manage and maintain that garden for our students. She also makes sure that things are nice for her colleagues around campus.”

Jenkins’ efforts have not gone unnoticed, and she was named the Long Beach Unified School District classified employee of the year late last month.

“The award is not why you do the job, but I think it’s great,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins was born and raised in Long Beach, where she attended Burnett Elementary, Hughes Middle School and Long Beach Poly High School (class of 1973) before getting her degree in criminology and accounting at Long Beach State University.

She wasn’t interested in education, but after a 34-year career as a paralegal with the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Jenkins was looking for something new to fill her time.

“When you’re retired and you come into another job, you look at things differently because it’s not your career, and you’re not looking to advance. … You’re just wanting to help,” Jenkins said. “I volunteered (with LBUSD) with a friend and I really liked it. I saw myself in a lot of these kids.”

Jenkins said her father worked in gang prevention in Long Beach, and she also wanted to help the kids who needed more guidance.

“I was like them, like one of those kids who always wanted to have the last word,” Jenkins recalled. “I talked probably too much. But I still graduated on honor roll and went to college, even though I didn’t fit into the norm. I wanted these kids to see that.”

Jenkins started working with LBUSD in 2012 and quickly took on extra responsibility with the Special Olympics program that was at Cabrillo.

“I just wanted to help because I didn’t think those kids were getting celebrated enough,” Jenkins added.

That was before COVID-19, and the program didn’t return after the shutdowns, so Jenkins turned her attention to procuring a garden on campus for her special education students to learn from.

Cabrillo Principal Wendy Poffenberger also said Jenkins has been able to share the garden with the campus while also procuring grant funding.

“She’s just beloved by the entire staff,” Poffenberger said. “You’ll often walk into a teachers lounge and there will be a basket full of freshly picked vegetables from the garden. It’s just been a great community building thing here on campus. And she led that. Her impact beyond the classroom is pretty unique.”

The four other finalists for the LBUSD award were Meleselisa Brown, human resources technician in nutrition services; Kimberlie Frederick, special instructional aide at Madison Elementary School; Kehaulani Fujikami, business development and marketing specialist in equity, engagement and partnerships; and Yadira Tellez, recreation aide at Stevenson Elementary School.

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