Something exciting happened in the world last June.
It wasn’t loud or fancy. Nor noticed by many people. Even those involved were mostly hot, itchy, and felt harassed — but then most births are not comfortable experiences. And this was a birth in a garden.
Last June, Tia Bazemore supervisor of programs at Owen’s adult daycare, New Horizons Supported Services Inc (NHSSI) came with her associate Kevin Jones to check out Forested LLC, a teaching garden in Mitchellville, Maryland. Tia and Kevin came to see if the garden might be an opportunity for the special needs folks under their care to engage with nature, to volunteer in and be a part of a new community. Tia and Kevin met Forested’s creator, Lincoln Smith, and his right hand man Ben Friton. I was there too. I claim to be the spark that got it started.
After that June day, all last summer and into the fall, a small group of folks came from NHSSI on Wednesdays to help out, and to taste what forest gardening is all about.
A “forest garden” is a sustainable way to grow food that works within a forest ecosystem. Rather than planting and replanting annuals that die each winter, forest garden systems rely on perennial plants and trees. There are many plants for food that are unknown to most American eaters, including me. Lincoln was open to having people from New Horizons come out and help and learn in his gardens, when I approached him with the idea last spring. But he did not anticipate how much mulch his new friends from New Horizons could move!
Largely due to the efforts of Kevin Jones, who not only drove them but worked side by side with a pitchfork, the NHSSI volunteers blanketed a surprising number of trees and shrubs with mulch, shoveling and dumping wheel barrows-full of wood chips. They also were offered fruit or vegetables grown at Forested to taste: tomatoes, “ugly apples,” lemon grass, or plums. Homegrown looks different than stuff at the grocery store. In the fall they planted a small bed of garlic.
“I like to get them out from behind their technology, and into nature, ” explains Kevin, when I asked what motivated him. “I’d like them to learn about farming.”
How many gardening-type jobs can the individuals from New Horizons handle? We don’t know. So much is still to figure out. This was just a humble little connection between an adult day care organization and a local business. Only once a week, for a few hours. But I believe it was the beginning of something good.
And still humble and simple as it was, this opportunity could not have happened without the passionate interest of five people. Lincoln is passionate about the ecosystem that feeds him, and Ben about helping people around the world grow their own food (check out his website CanYaLove), and special needs folks. Tia Bazemore loves the idea of her people getting out into the sun, and also letting people see that they can help. Kevin loves learning about how plants make food himself, and without his drive to make sure this group got a van, the whole thing would have fallen apart. I of course am pretty passionate about my boy’s quality of life. As the spark, the idea generator, my job was bugging people: starting it, and restarting it, and smoothing the channels of communication, standing in for Lincoln or Ben when they couldn’t be there, bringing water and fruit and veggie snacks to share under the canopy when our work was done. It took all five of us. So I don’t mean to say “this is easy.” I mean to say “this is important.”
Owen is one of the group that comes every Wednesday, with his one to one aide to keep him out of trouble. He is not particularly drawn to gardening. But he can haul mulch, and he feels good when he has done something useful, when he has been (or been made to be) part of a team. Get out into the sunshine and sweat a little. Unwilling as Owen is, he still can make a contribution. And the others on the team of volunteers are truly volunteers – they want to be there. They take satisfaction in that work. And that is exactly the point of the project.
As Ms. Tia says, “It’s important to me for people to see that these folks from New Horizons do not just need help – they can be helpers. They can be part of the solution.”
How many systems and how many ways can we find for those we call challenged to be contributors? It seems obvious to me that a life of usefulness as an integral member the community is beneficial to the individual, outweighing the value of even a safe and cared-for, but segregated existence. But how do society and the workplace benefit by the presence that someone with an intellectual disability (for example) brings to it, something apart from the skills each brings like any other human? There is something – parents (tired as they are) know it. Those who love working with special needs folks know this well, and it is what they love. While hard to quantify, its presence is palpable. If you have a person with special needs in your life, and you imagine that person removed from your life, then you can see it. What is “it”? I would call this presence a sphere of innocence.
Exposure to all kinds of people is a valuable part of ongoing adult education. But regular contact with the sphere of innocence is part of education of the spirit. Regular contact with a person who is “different” can slow us down, might cause us to reflect, maybe re-think our over-full agendas. How would you measure that? Longer life? Less cancer?
Says Lincoln “The people [from New Horizons] are such a delight to be around. Cheerful, upbeat, willing. It’s just nice being around their spirit – their energy.”
And Ben put it into words this way: “With New Horizons folks joy is expressed in their whole bodies and faces. For me, as someone who does the grunt work everyday, their joy in contributing [to what we are doing] is a delight. It brings me joy.”
How do you value joy — or positive human energy? Truly, it’s presence hard to quantify on a balance sheet. But then again who wouldn’t want it?
Post Script – I would like to get the names of these volunteers from NHSSI under these photos – as soon as I can get that info I will add it! But it’s time to get this article published!!