Gardeners with and without disabilities share stories, get their hands dirty together

Participants, volunteers, and other guests mingled in the clearing at Troy Gardens. Some sat at picnic tables covered with vibrant blue tablecloths while others served themselves at the abundant food table. They were meeting for the Harvest Party, the final gathering of the Gardening for Good program.

It started as an idea in Rebecca Starke’s mind to combine two of her passions: gardening and working with people with developmental disabilities. She spent 20 years helping people with disabilities in a vocational setting and keeps a plot at Troy Community Gardens. Over the summer she served as the program director of Gardening for Good.

The program helps people with disabilities learn about gardening and related topics with volunteers at the Troy Community Gardens, where Starke introduced her idea. Each participant received the support of at least one volunteer.

“It really is giving people with disabilities a voice about something they care about and a way for them to really develop these new skills,” Starke said, adding that it allowed them to go beyond their “typical routine.” She encouraged participants to pursue their individual interests and skills.

Aside from just gardening, participants gained a full community experience with the program, socializing with each other and other Troy gardeners. Many were able to see their own stories – told around a circle at several of the meetings – published on the blog Starke created.

“It’s been an awesome project,” said Carol Christopher, a Gardening for Good volunteer. “I learned a lot about gardening, and it’s really just a fun place to come meet people.”

At the party, appearances often weren’t enough to tell the volunteers and participants apart; most chatted, danced, and drummed as if attending a reunion of friends.

“It’s not like this is a group of gardening for people with disabilities; it’s a group of gardening for gardeners,” Starke said. She noted that one day only around nine of the 40 attendees were individuals with disabilities.

“It’s not like it’s insignificant that it’s for people with disabilities, but it’s more natural [than that],” she said, “people coming together, just enjoying each other’s company.”

Gardening for Good met once a week for an hour and a half from May 31 to August 16. Starke organized a mini-workshop each week to accompany time in the garden. Participants learned about a range of topics from bird-watching and flower-arranging to citizenship.

For three sessions sprinkled throughout the twelve weeks, Marge Pitts, a volunteer, led the “garden stories” workshop. Participants and volunteers shared their personal experiences with the group. She compiled their stories and pictures into a book that she plans to copy and distribute.

Both Pitts and Starke spoke fondly of the second story session. One man who chose not to participate during the previous “Garden Stories Salon” brought a guitar and played “Kumbaya” while the others sang along.

“It was perfect,” Starke said. “It was his expression of how he was feeling that night. So it doesn’t matter what people bring to it. All of it is really a fabulous contribution.”

Starke said sharing thoughts and feelings seemed to be “a different opportunity” for the project’s participants.

That was the moment most of them started to open up, Pitts said. “It’s not really a writing class,” she said. “It’s telling your story, and you do that however you communicate, whatever your gift is, that’s how you share.”

Starke also created a blog for Gardening for Good, where she posted entries after each week’s gathering. Some of them featured the stories given to her by the participants.

Harvest Party attendee Julie Horner said she’s been following the blog and enjoying their stories. She heard about the project from Starke and came to one of the gatherings early in the summer.

“For a community garden to have something like this for people with disabilities is just so fantastic,” Horner said. “What I’ve noticed is that the participants are really getting into gardening…I’d like to see all community gardens involving people with disabilities like this.”

Several others echoed this sentiment. Hoping to spread the idea elsewhere, Starke plans to talk with the Community Action Coalition, the group that oversees all area community gardens.

This summer, she had 12 consistent participants with disabilities but the number changed from week to week. They averaged around 10 volunteers per night. Some people – friends and fellow Troy gardeners – also came to “hang out” with them even if they didn’t want to garden, which Starke encouraged. She liked that the project allowed people to meet their neighbors.

While the project at Troy was focused on people living on Madison’s north side, it drew people from all over.

Starke received funding for Gardening for Good from the Dane County Human Services in a one-time grant. She and Pitts plan to pursue more funding opportunities over the winter to continue the program next year.

 “It’s been a huge success and Rebecca did an awesome job organizing it, and it’s just wonderful, and I hope we do it again,” Pitts said, “until I die.”

Most of the participants and volunteers enthusiastically support the project’s continuation. Rick Lewis, a participant with Down syndrome, said he would love to do it again next year. 

“The project is great work…and we worked really hard,” he said. “I like everything about it.”

Despite the praise most attendees gave to Starke, she insisted that the program worked because of the participants and volunteers.

“I could do all the footwork that I could and it was the people coming together that just… clicked,” Starke said. “And people just came so open and engaged.”

She started to tear up as she talked about it. “I just came away from there just…deeply touched,” she said. “Why can’t it be like this everywhere is what it really felt like to me. Why can’t we all kind of come together in ways where we really accept each other right where we’re at?”

To read more about Gardening for Good, visit the blog here.