"Food, Exercise, Friends, and Maybe Money"
It started out a modest proposal. In 2009, AT for Kansans (ATK) applied for a 3-year Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) recreational programs grant to develop 5 community gardens accessible to individuals with disabilities, seniors, and those with serious health conditions. They estimated they'd reach 150 people with disabilities each year (plus their social networks), fund some tools, some technical assistance, some structural modifications, and a little admin for local community garden coordinators. In their application they predicted gardening would have positive social, health, and employment outcomes, and dutifully explained how they would track, tally, and report them.
The enthusiasm they tapped into, however, no one predicted.
By the end of year one, the Kansas Inclusive Community Gardening Project closed the number of participants with disabilities it could reasonably track at 370--more than double its intended target. "And these are people with pacemakers, amputees, individuals with spinal cord injury, back problems, health conditions," emphasizes Program Director Sara Sack, "you name it, and all ages have been involved in the gardens!"
Employment outcomes, too, have already exceeded expectations. In its application, Kansas anticipated the social benefits of gardening could extend to "possibly new employment contacts." Yet by the close of year one, 6 participants had actually acquired work through their community garden. "It's the sleeper story about this initiative, I think," reflects Project Coordinator Sheila Simmons, "that there are individuals really getting work."
Low Hanging Fruit
ATK partnered with community gardens at all stages of development, from longstanding programs to those just starting up. Their idea was supported by a literature review that showed, nationally, community gardens were not conscious of accessibility issues, and that many even had policies that exclude practices at the heart of accessible cultivation. Vertical gardening was often banned for blocking light on other plots. Smaller more manageable plots were often unavailable.
Sack and Simmons helped new programs develop accessible policies and materials as well as physical spaces and structures, and worked to retrofit the practices, pathways and sheds of established gardens. All programs integrated data collection into their membership and orientation materials, including end-of-season surveys. All programs were the recipients of adaptive tools for their tool sheds.
Outreach to potential gardeners with disabilities was accomplished through county extension services, ATK's 5 access sites, and of course, word of mouth. Which is why, Simmons says, the impact of this program will now never go away. "We get calls from other gardens around the state. They've heard about us and they want to learn more." Indeed, according to Simmons, the garden that was the most hesitant to change initially is now the most fervent supporter of accessible practices. "They've seen what this means for them. These are people dedicated, after all, to spreading the word about gardening--to get you germinating seeds in February--and now they are reaching a whole new population of converts!"
Garden Plot or Job Reference?
Garden converts include people like "Henry," an older low-income gentleman with serious health conditions who had recently lost his wife. Henry joined the Parsons garden at the start of last season and ended up working there as much as three times each day.
"It anchored him," Simmons muses, "it brought him out where there is always someone to talk to. He was there with people of all ages. He loved to see the children, and he was so attentive to his plants that people began offering him work."
Indeed, Simmons saw how a community garden plot can go beyond addressing social isolation, but may also function like a compelling job reference: your plot a reflection of your punctuality, attention to detail, organizational skills, even creativity. "And we have stories like Henry's in every garden," she says.
Swords into Plowshares
Another surprise came at the Fort Riley military base. Simmons was there to talk to service members with traumatic brain injuries (TBI) about tools for memory and organization. "I went with Echo Pens and iPads and ended up talking about gardening!"
That's because the base is home to a large and ambitious community garden. Between 150-270 service members participate, many with head injuries ("though we do have a couple of guys gardening from wheelchairs," Simmons notes). Dubbed "The Warrior Garden," it helps feed kids at the Fort Riley day care center as well as gardener families.
ATK is providing Warrior Gardeners with adaptive tools and strategies for gardening with TBI--help that has proved to have a positive employment side effect. "These bases are massive," Simmons explains, "and a lot goes into grounds keeping and appearances. So it's interesting, in some cases the garden has enabled service personnel to revise their MOS's [military job descriptions]. They're out of their tanks, but still on active duty taking care of the grounds."
Examples of ATK accessible gardening strategies:
- Smaller plots
- Raised beds and wide rock pathways
- Vertical growing
- Drip irrigation system with accessible valves (different ways of turning water on and off)
- Adaptive tools in accessible sheds
- Accessible produce washing station
- Hutchinson Community Garden
- Ft. Riley Wounded Warriors
- Elm Creek Community Garden, Iola
- Parsons Community Garden
- WIN Community Garden, Wichita
- Local garden coordinators
- Master gardeners
- USDA County Extension Agents
- 4-H Programs
- ATK access sites
- American Community Gardening Association
Sara Sack, ATK program director
Sheila Simmons, ATK project coordinator
Visit the Parsons Community Gardens Blog
Find your local community garden at the American Community Gardening Association Web site.