A casual conversation on a porch swing about the joys of gardening several years ago planted the seeds for an idea that germinated Wednesday in St. Charles.
The conversation between a caseworker and a client sparked the idea of spreading that joy to the developmentally disabled adults here. On Wednesday the idea came to fruition when clients served by several agencies in St. Charles cut the ribbon on an adaptive garden at Emmaus Homes.
The garden, with funding from the Developmental Disabilities Resource Board of St. Charles County (DDRB), gives clients of Emmaus Homes, Community Living, Willows Way and RHD-Missouri the opportunity to plant and harvest their own organic produce. The agencies a variety of services for individuals with cognitive, intellectual and other developmental disabilities, including residential, employment, social/recreation and day program services.
Last year a couple of dozen clients of Emmaus Homes, Community Living, Willows Way and RHD-Missouri, with the help of a DDRB grant, planted a late summer crop of radishes and spinach in planter boxes.
But Wednesday, the client’s potential for raising even more crops grew with the opening of an expanded garden that will give each agency a 4-by-20-foot plot as well as raised planter boxes for greater accessibility to those in wheelchairs. The DDRB has also provided each agency with a seed budget to use as the clients wish.
About 50 clients and agency officials attended the ribbon cutting.
Ron Koetter, an Emmaus Homes resident, said he helped with last year’s garden. It was the first time he had ever gardened. He said he wants to grow carrots, potatoes, lettuce, radishes, tomatoes, cucumbers, rhubarb and peas. Asked what he likes about gardening, he said, “I like everything.”
The idea of gardening for the disabled is “sort of a movement across America” at the moment, Patty Yarrow, support coordinator of recreation for Emmaus, said.
She said she learned at a conference she attended recently that a lot of agencies are getting back to garden. Agencies that used to have clients garden “as part of their time there” removed them years ago.
“But now they realize some people like to garden,” she said. “So now it’s just an option for recreation that we’re giving back to them."
DeMerchant, now a case management supervisor, recalled how the conversation with a client living at Emmaus Homes planted the seeds for the garden unveiled on Wednesday.
“She was an elderly lady sitting out in a back porch swing and we were looking out over this expansive grass because Emmaus House just has acres of open area,” DeMerchant said.
“She talked about how nice it would be to have a garden.”
The woman told DeMerchant many years ago Emmaus House had its own garden and residents helped grow the food they ate. “Then they moved away from it because it was looked upon by the community as being kind of a segregated community living off the land, a little closed society,” DeMerchant said.
“She and I talked about how nice it would be for people to be able to tend a small garden,” DeMerchant said. “Then I got to thinking because of my own interest in organic food and gardening myself.”
DeMerchant began researching community gardens and farm co-ops in St. Charles and was surprised at what she found. “We have none,” she said. “St. Charles is so huge it’s shocking that we have no farm co-op and no community gardens.”
“That led me to a realization that many of the individuals we serve and support who have disabilities have never had the opportunity to garden and never had the wonderful experience of putting their hands in soil and actually tending a garden,” she said. “They haven’t been able to watch it grow and then actually reap benefits from it and eat what they grow.”
DeMerchant’s musings led to a conversation with DDRB Executive Director Peg Capo, who suggested she meet with provider agencies to see what it would take to create a garden for their clients.
DeMerchant then connected with a St. Louis University nutritionist who had developed an adaptive garden.
“It’s an amazing adaptive garden with different levels of garden boxes and adaptive tools for people who have difficulty holding tradition tools and a water garden designed for the sensory needs of someone with autism,” she said.
DeMerchant then networked with the four agencies which “expressed interest in the idea,” she said.
The board approved a $10,000 stipend for the first year to create four garden boxes—one for each agency. That led to the expansion this year to a traditional garden with walkways.
DeMerchant hopes the garden is just the beginning. Plans are to add a gazebo and there’s talk about a greenhouse further down the line.
She envisions something similar to SLU’s garden and perhaps a garden where “the community as a whole could benefit.” But she realizes there are ramifications to deal with when a non-profit agency is involved. “But it would be really cool,” she said.
Meanwhile, DeMerchant is happy the gardeners will have the opportunity to see how their food grows and possibly prepare some of the produce they grow.
The DDRB and participating agencies hope that encourages people with developmental disabilities to increase their intake of fresh fruits and vegetables.
“It’s a challenge to get people active who have a natural propensity to not be and motive people who aren’t motivated,” DeMerchant said. “This is just a little step.”
The agencies are looking for community volunteer gardeners to work with clients on gardening techniques. For more information on volunteering, contact Chris Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org.