“Operation Prickly Pear” is a school fundraiser that involves the entire Pusch Ridge sixth grade class, students, parents, and teachers, from harvesting the fruit to the production and packaging and sales of the final products.
Students are instructed on how to identify the highest quality, ripe fruits and carefully remove the spiny “pears” with tongs. After the fruit is processed into juice by Cheri’s Desert Harvest, parent volunteers join with Pusch Ridge kitchen staff to combine the juice with other ingredients to produce the jelly and syrup which is then labeled and packaged for everyday use or dressed for holiday gift giving.
For 11 years, profits from the sale of the cactus fruit product have helped fund a three-day trip for students in March of each year to the Grand Canyon. For many sixth graders, visiting the Grand Canyon not only provides their first look at one of the seven natural wonders of the world, but also a first time away from their parents. For their three-day trip in March, the class will take a chartered bus to Williams and ride the Grand Canyon Railway train to the Canyon. In addition to visiting the canyon, students also explore the Sinagua ruins at Montezuma’s Castle, and practice their etiquette with a meal at the elegant dining room of the historic El Tovar Hotel.
Sixth grade teacher Holly Munro sees the trip as “an opportunity for the kids to appreciate the beauty and variety that God created not only in the landscape of northern Arizona, but also within each other.” The final night of the trip is marked by a blessing ceremony where each student is assigned another to describe and honor/bless with a written essay, and then which they recite to the entire group. “Many of my former students say that the blessing they received during the 6th grade Grand Canyon trip is a particularly special memento of their school years.” said Munro.
Although the goal is to provide a unforgettable learning and bonding experience for the students at the Grand Canyon, parents have found an added side benefit to the jelly making; a feeling of belonging and contributing to the school community. “I think jelly making is the best part of this fundraiser,” said parent Carla Ellis, “You learn something new, meet new people and make lasting friendships.” “This year’s batch of volunteers included an Oro Valley Police Officer, a firefighter, a grandmother recently returned from Israel, a radio personality, a missionary, a mother of 7 BOYS, a pharmacist and nurse from Diamond Children's Medical Center, a singer, and the list goes on and on,” said parent Milissa Wise.
It was an 11 year old student who, in 2001, landed upon the idea of producing a fundraising item unique to Tucson. In her first year teaching 6th grade at Pusch Ridge then, Holly Munro recounted, "Because of limited space back then, sixth graders were taught at the neighboring CDO Baptist Church. It was on one of our many walks to and from the main school campus that one of our students noticed the abundance of Prickly Pear fruit around the 80 acres of school grounds, and suggested the students make something with the fruit.” Thus began “Prickly Pear Project, the annual production and sales of prickly pear jelly and syrup to help fund the traditional 6th grade retreat to the Grand Canyon. "In those days, it was a pretty messy and painful process as parents were involved in juicing the spiky fruit," recalled Munro, adding "thankfully, Cheri's Desert Harvest now generously juices the fruit our students collect."
Called “tunas” in Mexico, the prickly pear fruit, or “pear” is rich in vitamin C and antioxidants and very popular in Mexico, Central and South America, Mediterranean countries and parts of Africa. It is becoming increasingly popular in the United States, where menu items now include prickly pear lemonade and ice tea, margaritas, sauces and glazes. The ruby red prickly pear jelly is noted to be an excellent condiment for grilled lamb chops, roast duck, venison, or pork and great for glazing fruit tarts. According to mom Wendi, Pusch Ridge students Chris and Mikayla Rossi also enjoy their PB&PPJ sandwiches (Peanut Butter and Prickly PearJelly!)
The “fruits of labor” of the Pusch Ridge Christian Academy sixth grade class are currently for sale at the school front office as 9500 N. Oracle. Jars of jelly or syrup may be purchased for $5 each, or $55 for a dozen. Call the school at 797-0107 during office hours (745am-4:15pm) to order. Delivery is available to residents of Foothills and Oro Valley area. Jelly and syrup will also be available for purchase for the next two Saturdays, December 8 and December 15, at the Walmart in Oro Valley Marketplace from 8:30am to 2:30pm and at the Oro Valley Farmers Market at the Oro Valley Town Hall.