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Story Garden: Fun, Education, Socialization, and Crafts

December 6, 2018

The original version of this article by was published in the Gallup Independent on February 14, 2017 and can be accessed here. This post has been cross-posted with permission by ATD Fourth World.

On any given Saturday in the center of the Gallup Flea Market, 6-year-old Canyon Curley darts from reading stories to playing with puzzles before deciding to rest in the quiet of the ocean-blue trailer donated to the nonprofit All Together in Dignity Fourth World’s weekly Story Garden.

“This is Canyon’s favorite place to come to,” Canyon’s mother Dawn Curley said. “These guys are great with the kids. …It’s like a secondary education with socialization and crafts.”

The Story Garden offers kids and families a free weekly opportunity to engage in fun educational activities together with different stations offering different activities, such as picture books, puzzles and computer games. ATD Fourth World also has special activities for the kids to do on occasion, such as having adult education students from the University of New Mexico – Gallup North Campus come tell stories to the children.

Nine-year-old Tavjeana Negale, who has been going to the Story Garden since she was 5, was playing computer games helping her learn the state capitals Saturday. But Negale said what she really enjoyed was the arts and crafts over the years, including making a dream catcher and a mask.

The Story Garden is usually set up and ready for the kids at 11 a.m. – weather permitting – and wraps up around 2 or 3 p.m.; however, it starts up earlier in the day when the weather is warmer in spring and summer, around 9 or 10 a.m.

Start of the Story Garden

Working with the kids Saturday were Inga Ruiz, of the UNM-Gallup North Campus, Erick Sanders, of ATD Fourth World, and Karen Stornelli, also of ATD Fourth world who originally decided to bring the Story Garden to Gallup with the aid of community input.

“The idea for doing this actually came out of a community forum we went to the first year we were here where parents, educators and academics were all saying we need more opportunities just for literacy – for family literacy spaces – and for kids to be stimulated educationally, socially, all of those things,” Stornelli said.

ATD Fourth World sets up similar spaces across the world, generally called Street Libraries, so Stornelli said creating that space seemed like a natural fit.

Because educational opportunities are difficult to deliver to kids in vast, rural areas such as McKinley County and the surrounding communities, Stornelli said the Gallup Flea Market seemed like the perfect place to set up that kind of family literacy space.

“It is a hub for the social and economic life for this part of the country,” Stornelli said. “It’s one of the reasons we chose it as a strategic place to do what we’re doing because we knew that a lot of lower income families in the region came here for their economic viability. …It’s an important place for the community.”

Fostering positive change

Andy and Sandy Romero, who have a stall across the way from the Story Garden and have been at the flea market since 1981, said they’ve seen positive changes since the Story Garden popped up about five years ago, particularly in some children who had attitude problems.

Sandy Romero recalled one girl who frequents the flea market: “Before she was a little brat – point blank, she was a brat. Now you hear her say please and thank you. Her attitude is much better.”

Andy Romero said he attributes that to the fact that Stornelli, Sanders, Ruiz and the other people who have helped with the garden have patience with the children and treat them with kindness.

“They believe in them,” he said. “That support system is really important to a small child. …Even for an hour or two hours, it helps them develop.”

“They’re good to all the kids,” Sandy Romero added.

The Romeros said because of the positive changes they’ve seen, they try to help the Story Garden succeed in whatever way they can, including donating the trailer now used by ATD Fourth World to the nonprofit after finding it abandoned in the flea market. Andy Romero said the kids spent a Saturday painting the trailer with an oceanic motif.

“They’re a positive feature at the Gallup Flea Market,” Andy Romero said.

Dawn Curley said she’s been coming to the Story Garden with Canyon for about the past nine months and really appreciate what the space offers her son, who is autistic and doesn’t do well in classroom settings.

Dawn Curley said the people involved in the Story Garden give her son the one-on-one attention he needs, particularly Sanders, while she can take a breather, walk around the flea market and check on Canyon from time to time.

“He’ll stay here all day,” she said, “from the time they open to the time they close.”

For more information about Story Garden, contact Karen Stornelli at or 505 488 3624 or visit

To learn more, read Story Garden: Uplifting Individuals, Strengthening Families, Transforming Communities, a qualitative report highlighting findings from a participatory evaluation of Story Garden that pinpointed positive changes at the individual, family and community levels.

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