Brandi LaBenne teaches county students
by Margaret Anderson
Special to The Star
Oct 08, 2013 | 1267 views |  0 comments | 26 26 recommendations | email to a friend | print
For the past two and a half years, Brandi LaBenne has been an environmental educator for Jennifer Yates at the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. She teaches Calhoun County elementary school children at Pleasant Valley, Piedmont, Weaver and Wellborn about recycling, conservation, waste management, gardening and water sheds.

She recently aided Dr. David West in taking 15 elementary students and five volunteer high school students from Wellborn on a day-long kayaking trip so they could get a first-hand look at nature. Brandi said it was an excellent opportunity for them to learn about environmental appreciation.

Brandi conducts summer camps at Cane Creek Community Garden for children which allows them to become junior master gardeners and junior master conservationists.

“I love that program,” she said. “What’s so neat is that during the school year, we kind of do this at the schools. We take them through the process of learning about compost, soils, plants, how to cultivate the plants and how to harvest them. They learn about diseases, how to look for insects and learn which insects are good and which ones are bad.”

She teaches students about the importance of weeding.

“We always have to weed before we pick,” she said. “Otherwise, we don’t pick as well if we don’t weed first.”

Then comes the lessons about harvesting, canning and even selling their produce, sometimes at the farmers market.

“They learn about money and they learn about how much work a farmer puts in and how much money he can get back,” said Brandi. “That’s a really good life lesson, I think.”

Brandi was born at Fort Benning, Ga. Her parents are Richard and Judy Atkinson of Jacksonville. The family lived in New York, Arizona and Munich, Germany. Her father worked for the Explosive Ordinance Disposal. His family was used to him being called to the Pentagon, Washington or other places when there was the threat of a bomb.

The Atkinsons settled in Jacksonville when her father retired from his military service at Fort McClellan.

Brandi’s brother, Richard Atkinson, lives in Winston-Salem, N. C. Her sisters, Kristi West and Kari Hill, live in Summerville, S. C.

The four Atkinson children surprised their parents this past summer for their 50th anniversary.

After graduating from Jacksonville High School, Brandi attended Fairmont State University in West Virginia, where she earned a degree in arts and education. Fairmont is the birthplace of Nick Saban.

She and her husband, Keith, who teaches strings for Gadsden High School’s orchestra, have two children. Jonah is 6, and Jade is 5. Her job is part-time, so it allows her ample time to home school them.

“I wanted a job where I could work part time, because I want to stay home with my kids,” she said. “I have my elementary education degree, so I feel comfortable enough to teach them. I really like public education. It’s more about spending time with my kids. I like home schooling them just because I can cater to them better and give them that individualized education.”

Brandi said she experiences days when Jonah and Jade don’t want to study. Then, some days are completely opposite.

“There are some days when they hit a knowledge plateau,” she said. “And other times their brains are on fire, and they have all the answers.”

Brandi said that Cane Creek Community Garden and First United Methodist Church are important to her family.

“We’re usually at one or the other,” she said. “The kids go to Crosswalk every Wednesday at church. They have a Bible lesson and hands on activities that help them understand and have a relationship with God.”

She said that she’s thankful for all the friends, family and co-workers that God has put in her life.

Years ago, Brandi was into taekwondo and became a first degree black belt. That was her hobby. Today, Jonah and Jade are her hobbies.

The four LaBennes enjoy cooking together.

“A lot of our meals are quick meals, but when we do cook, we just about always cook as a family,” said Brandi. “We all cook breakfast together on Saturday mornings. My daughter helps more than my son. We don’t go by recipes. We go by how my family has always made food. That’s how my mom did it, and that’s how her mom did it.”

Growing up, Brandi and her siblings each had a night to cook for the rest of the family. Her mother was always available to help, but the children had to do their part.

Her family enjoys Kielbasa and Cabbage, Buffalo Dip, Hot Pepper Jelly, and Squash Casserole.

Contact Margaret at


Kielbasa and Cabbage

2 packs Polish kielbasa
1 lg. cabbage
1 T. butter
Dash of salt
1 t. Morton’s Natures Season
4-6 c. of water (enough water to cover sausage and cabbage)

Put into stock pot and bring to a boil. Cook until cabbage is soft. Sometimes, Brandi broils the sausage to make it crispy and then adds it to the cabbage. Just boil sausage with cabbage if you want it soft. Serve with rice and blackeyed peas.

Buffalo Dip

2 cans canned chicken
2/3 jar Moore’s Buffalo sauce
½ bottle Ranch dressing
1 pkg. Philadelphia cream cheese
4 c. cheddar cheese

Put in crock pot and let cheese melt Stir. Serve with tortilla chips.

Hot Pepper Jelly

½ c. minced bell peppers
½ c. minced green jalapeno peppers
6 ½ c. sugar
1 ½ c. distilled white vinegar
2 - 3 oz. pkgs. Liquid pectin

In a large kettle, combine peppers, sugar and vinegar. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat and let stand for five minutes. Skim off any foam. Bring mixture to a full rolling boil that cannot be stirred down. Add pectin, constantly stirring for one minute. Remove from heat and ladle into eight canning jars (prepared according to manufacturer’s instructions), leaving 1/8 inch head space. Invert jars 30 seconds, then stand upright to seal. Serve with cream cheese and crackers.

Squash Casserole

5-7 medium squash
1 can cream of chicken soup
4 c. cheddar cheese
1 onion, chopped
2 eggs
2 rolls Ritz crackers, crushed

Slice squash into thin circles. Stir together all ingredients except one roll of Ritz crackers (use that for topping). Put into 9x13 casserole dish. Bake at 350 degrees in preheated oven for 45 minutes.
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Brandi LaBenne teaches county students by Margaret Anderson
Special to The Star

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