Fifteen years ago, Phyllis Meole and others created the Ability Garden at the New Hanover County Arboretum in Wilmington, North Carolina. After several years of experience as an HT in retirement homes and hospitals, Meole got the opportunity to create a public garden designed to offer horticultural therapy activities to a variety of people. “We thought it was ironic that you had to be hospitalized to be able to benefit from horticultural therapy! We went to see what they were doing at the Buehler Enabling Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden where we met Gene Rothert,” Meole explanined to me a couple years ago. The Ability Garden opened as a Cooperative Extension Service with support from North Carolina State University and A&T State University.
Under Meole’s guidance, the Ability Garden has been opened to local schools and offering programs for children and adults with physical and developmental disabilities, at risk youth, older adults with dementia or other age-related issues, mental patients in outpatient programs and people suffering from macular degeneration “to teach them to continue gardening as they lose their eyesight”. A few years ago, a grant even gave the Ability Garden the opportunity to reach out to schools and retirement homes where practical problems and budget cuts made it impossible to organize outings. Meole would drive a truck to them and provide indoors or outdoors activities.
But then two things happened. Meole retired and financial support fizzled. When I spoke to her two years ago, she had already noticed a trend. “A few years ago, we had two HT. Now we have only one. There are budget cuts. I hope we can continue.” Enters Heather Kelejian who has been with the program for 11 years first as a volunteer, then as an intern and now as a part-time employee focusing on fundraising and programming. “We have been struggling financially and restructuring the program for sustainability,” she explained to me a few weeks ago. With state support going away, the Friends of the Arboretum recently voted to support the Ability Garden.
Because of staff reductions that left the program with only three part-time employees, it has been necessary to make choices. “We are focusing on young adults, 18 to 22 with developmental disabilities. Two groups come once a week through the school system to work on vocational skills,” Kelejian explained. “We also have a school garden in an at-risk community, working with the school and the social workers. They mostly have behavioral problems and we use the garden as a tool for them to focus.” As for older adults, groups are still visiting the Ability Garden. “The problem is that we might only see them once a month. It is not enough to have a dramatic impact. Right now, we can’t start individual groups because it requires too much work. It will be a while before we can offer that again.”
Kelejian, an English major who received training in horticultural therapy, is optimistic that funding issues will be resolved by the end of the year and that she will be able to start building the program next year. “A nursing home which serves a large population in the area has replicated our model with a hothouse and an indoor class. We will use their space for programs. We are also getting calls from schools that want to start gardens. There are about a dozen schools with children with special needs where we would want to be. That’s a 5-year project.” Another population Meole had hoped to serve is still out of reach. “A veteran clinic opened last year. I’d love to do a program with them, but it is more long-range and we will have to convince them,” says Kelejian.
Meole had a few heartwarming stories to tell. “I once worked with an older woman with dementia who was very uncommunicative. We planted parsley in a pot. She got more animated, but was still not speaking. I told her one could see that she had gardened before. “I used to have a garden and I was growing our food,” she replied. It was like turning on a switch. Planting and touching the earth can start things.” Meole recounted another encounter with a very young woman. “A few years ago, we had a program for young pregnant women who were in a residential program to quit drugs. They would roll their eyes and not care. But I still tried to share my enthusiasm and I took them to the garden. We planted something in a pot.” Before she retired, Meole got a visit from one of those young women and her mother. “I did not like coming here, but the plant looked nice in my room. I had my baby. I am going to finish high school and continue school. I will have a house and a garden,” she wanted Meole to know.
“We plant a seed. That’s all we can do. But to me, it is a powerful experience. It can make a difference in their life. With autistic children, I sometimes see their eyes lit up when they smell chocolate mint. Maybe a door just opened.” For Meole, the horticultural therapist’s job is to identify the barriers that stand between people and the garden, and to remove them. Whether they be cognitive, physical and sometimes financial. Another way to remove barriers promoted by Kelejian is the participation of artists with disabilities in the “Art in the Arboretum” annual art show coming up October 3-5.