Community Garden for Youth with Intellectual Disabilities
By: Constanza Sabogal & Manuela Menéndez
Let me introduce you to Constanza Sabogal Lagomarsino, horticultural therapist and Manuela Menéndez, occupational and horticultural therapist, from Buenos Aires, Argentina. They have a Community Garden for young adults with intellectual disabilities and older adults and both received their training in horticultural therapy with the Argentinian Horticultural Therapy Association. Here is their journey in horticultural therapy.
Daniela Silva-Rodriguez Bonazzi
Vocational HT in Argentina
In 2015 we began offering horticultural therapy for different population groups: older adults and young adults with intellectual disabilities and/or intellectual and motor disabilities. Ages range between 18 and 40 years of age. At present we manage the Municipal Organic Garden Program at the Municipality of San Isidro (Secretaría de Integración Comunitaria), one of Buenos Aires’s municipalities, in Argentina. Aside from this organic garden we have implemented other gardens throughout the city. The main goal of these gardens is social inclusion of young adults with intellectual disabilities.
How Does the Program Work?
The program has two stages: at Stage I participants receive training in horticultural skills for one year. Upon completing Stage I participants receive a certificate in horticulture. At Stage II they attend the “Huerta Modelo Program at Puerto Libre”, a community vegetable garden for their vocational training. The program has several goals and dynamics, but the main goal is to promote independence through the acquisition of soft and vocational skills, as well as improving their quality of life. Some of the tasks performed at the garden are: vegetable seedling production, plant maintenance, composting and keeping the garden productive. Vegetables are harvested and sold fresh in bags or canned; vegetable seedlings and garden boxes are also sold to the community as part of the sustainability program. The money collected is distributed among all the participants or “Huerteros”, allowing them to receive a monthly income as well as building their self-esteem and self-worth.
Our program has incorporated “volunteers”, great protagonists of the program. These are neighbors and older adults from the community who volunteer their time to the vegetable garden as well as helping participants. In return, they acquire horticultural skills. Their contribution and their side-by-side work with the “Huerteros”, is essential to sustain the program in the community, team building, inter-generational experiences, and social interactions. All of this takes place in the vegetable garden, surrounded by nature, making the experience unique.
The Vegetable Garden
The vegetable garden was created in a vacant parking lot originally filled with stony ground.
This parking lot is located next to the Rio de la Plata in the northern part of Buenos Aires, with a good number of hours of direct sunlight. Sunlight hours were not an issue, as was the work in such hostile soil. For this reason, we decided to build raised beds into which we could add a good soil mix, necessary for optimal vegetable plant growth. Raised beds also gave participants with special needs, mainly motor, greater accessibility, promoting dexterity. Year after year our harvests have improved thanks to the good soil quality we used since the beginning and our use of the nutritional supply from our compost heap.
Special emphasis is put on the “Huerteros” commitment to the program in areas such as: arriving on time, notifying their absence, completing assigned tasks, improving their attention period, problem solving, as well as communication skills. Practicing these tasks daily has allowed participants to gain independence and responsibility for future jobs. During break, we share experiences with each other. This time suddenly becomes the “main activity”, seniors, volunteers and participants share their experiences and feelings. This period of time fulfills one of the program’s goals: community integration – a space where diverse population groups participate and coexist in harmony and respectfully, in a non-threatening environment. A true biodiversity not only ecological but human.
Nature’s Life Cycle
Our philosophy is based on respecting nature’s life cycles and ecosystems. For this reason, our vegetable garden is 100% organic. Participants are taught to recycle their organic home waste, incorporating it to the compost heap and producing natural fertilizer for the vegetable garden. They save seeds for the next season and prepare plant slurry (natural liquid fertilizer) from native plants. Participants attend the garden year-round, enjoying and learning from the seasons. In autumn, nature offers beautiful colors; we gather leaves to be used as mulch on the paths and to feed the compost heap; we sow seed for wintertime; and we start preparing the soil for the next season.
During winter, we appreciate stillness and practice contemplation; we recognize plants’ slow metabolism; we enjoy a nice cup of tea or mate outdoors, and work in the greenhouse. We harvest leaves and roots from different vegetables. We continue feeding the compost heap for a rich natural fertilizer for the following season. Spring is the best time for sensory stimulation: plants awake, everything accelerates. An array of colored flowers appears, pollinators and birds visit the garden. Our work in the garden increases: sowing, transplanting and watering are the main chores; visitors and volunteers attend the garden to collaborate or just chat. It’s the time when we enjoy and taste beans and peas!
During the summer, we enjoy the smell of the rainfall, and we shelter from the sunlight; we sweat working in the raised beds while snacking on the ripe tomatoes. It’s a time of abundant harvest and fear of drought, of saving seeds for the next season; a time to enjoy the sweat of our work, preparing bags filled with tomatoes, aubergines and bell peppers flavored with basil ready to be sold! The cycle is complete. We take time to share memories, experiences, and sensations, to cherish our personal growth and the acquisition of new skills from the previous year, with the expectation of what the new cycle will bring.
An important part of the program is community bonding. We build relationships with neighbors, enterprises, restaurants, nurseries, schools, municipal programs, and civil associations around the vegetable garden. Restaurants buy our fresh seasonal products; municipal nurseries donate native plants which we use to build a living fence to attract pollinators. Schoolchildren visit the garden where they are guided by our participants who proudly show their work. Civil associations help us in maintaining the garden with volunteers.
Fresh produce is not the only harvest in our garden. We harvest landscape transformation, self-growth and self-worth of participants, volunteers, and neighbors; and new bonds among the young adults with intellectual disabilities and older adults that attend the program but also with the entire community. Neighbors constantly remind us of the changes the parking lot went through, or volunteers who confess the ways in which participating in the garden changed their lives. Participants remember their learning process, how they learned to touch the soil or feared insects in the garden. Along the way, our participants have learned to water the seeds of patience, responsibility, commitment, nurture, empathy, and joy.
The vegetable garden has been of great joy for us. Being able to create an accessible and inclusive garden which allows this population group to acquire independence, soft and vocational life skills, produce their own food, build personal connections, among many other benefits, is immensely gratifying!