For decades, a greenhouse atop Jacobs High School was a dumping ground for embalmed cats, old television sets and broken equipment. But thanks to a school club, it's meeting its intended uses of growing plants and enhancing the school's curriculum.
What's more, the Green Eagles environmental club that renovated the greenhouse pays it forward by growing fruit and vegetable seedlings for the Algonquin Lake in the Hills Interfaith Food Pantry, which does not have a heated greenhouse. The food pantry, in turn, grows the seedlings in its two gardens until they ripen into food they give to the needy.
"Other people are going through tough times, so it's to help them out," said Sara Elliott, a Jacobs junior who belongs to the club.
All of this was possible from a $5,000 grant the Green Eagles secured from the District 300 Foundation. Green Eagles is a play on Golden Eagles, the Algonquin school's nickname.
The greenhouse dates back to 1975 and was used as such through the early 1980s, officials said.
But due to its poor design, lack of upkeep, outdated ventilation system that sometimes registered 120-degree temperatures, and subsequent walls that closed it off, the greenhouse fell into disrepair and became a catchall for all of the things people didn't want, school leaders said.
"If nobody knew what to do with it, it got dumped right here," said Terry Stroh, head of the school's science department.
The grant helped the 35-member club install a new ventilation system, repaint the greenhouse's interior, buy work tables and hang metallic curtains under the roof that let light in and kept temperatures comfortable. The club spent four days during the 2013 spring break cleaning, repainting and sprucing it up.
Before the renovation was complete, the club planted about 1,000 seedlings from the food pantry that included lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, beans, melons and potatoes. The plantings started in early March to get the seedlings "nice and big" for the food pantry in time to plant in May, Stroh said.
A May planting, he explained, would help the plants produce as many fruits and vegetables as possible for the pantry.
The greenhouse plants are situated in hydroponic setups, which means the plants are put into pots with clay pebbles -- rather than soil -- and placed into pods, where they receive nourishment from rainwater and liquid nutrients that recycle throughout the system.
Between its two gardens, the food pantry has donated 5,272 pounds of food this year to the needy, in part because of the Jacobs students, said Laurie Selpien, who runs the pantry's vegetable gardens.
"Fresh produce coming into a food pantry is a rarity. You don't see that very often, and we provide fresh produce for as long as possible," Selpien said. "We have people trying foods they've never eaten before."
Now, the club is working on its second batch of fruits and veggies for the food pantry.
The club's sponsors are also eager to share the greenhouse with the region and have opened it for tours.
Other classes are using it now to grow plants for their own use.
Officials want more of that in the future and hope to show the community how to grow their own fruits and vegetables at home and design a curriculum that involves the greenhouse.
If anything, the greenhouse project has already shown students how to give back to their community.
"I've always wanted to do it," Sara Elliott said. "But I didn't know how."