Extreme Ghostbusters

Children in ClassroomThe Horticultural Society of New York, located on W 58th St., in the heart of NYC, was founded in 1900 to improve the quality of life in New York by stimulating the knowledge and love of horticulture through education, library services and programs promoting gardens, and garden design.

Despite its rich historical tradition the HSNY has never become complacent. Instead the society has embraced a newer concept, called horticultural therapy, which has evolved as an approach to simultaneously encourage community building while making the world a little greener.

D.L. Airhart defines horticultural therapy as the use of plants and plant-related activities as treatment for persons with mental or physical disabilities, or for rehabilitation training for individuals with developmental disabilities to qualify them for transitional employment.

The society has adopted this approach with the idea that a beautiful garden can be many things to many people. It might create a solemn environment for reflection and conversation, or it might manifest as a glorious backdrop for a joyous occasion. Most of all it is a place where people can connect with themselves, others, and the sweet essence of nature. It seems to bring out the best in all of us.

Anthony R. Smith, President of the HSNY, recently stated in a New York Times editorial letter, "community gardens offer cost-free local green space, usually where there is no park at all within reach of the young and the elderly. For those who care for and enjoy them, the gardens foster pride and accomplishment, which is further manifested in the way neighborhoods that have community gardens think of and care for themselves."

The HSNY currently runs four horticultural therapy programs. The Green Years Program, in existence since 1996, collaborates with an uptown retirement community consisting of lower-income, retired individuals. The Appleseed program, which began in 1988, serves inner city 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders. The Greenhouse Program in the NYC jail facility, located on Riker's Island, ran for several years, but was pulled due to lack of funding until it was renewed in 1997. The Green Branches program, which has been in existence since 1996, initiates, designs and installs gardens in branch libraries. It has been especially successful in forming an effective partnership with the city's three public library systems and four botanical gardens.

The Green Years Program is headed up by Scott D. Appell, who is using his hands-on experience with plant care, and his academic knowledge with a not-for-profit retirement home called Goddard-Riverside which houses lower income, multi-racial and multi-ethnic retired people. It's the oldest such facility in the city, and has an outstanding reputation for care. A greenhouse located on the property acts as a contact point for the participants, many of who do not speak English. One reality of life in NYC is that many of the culturally diversified groups, collectively and or individually, do not interact on a regular basis. Appell, has been able to create common ground through this program. The dirt in the ground becomes the bonding agent. "Everyone gets along. No one is judgmental or territorial," said Appell.

Several of the participants have disabilities. Yet gardening tasks are divided evenly among them and no one complains about the rigorous hands-on nature of the work. In fact it has become their greatest therapy. Everyone is involved in a task, and enjoys making their contribution; the garden benefits, and so do the participants. Something for everyone seems to be the common theme here. Every contribution is acknowledged, appreciated and usable. No one is turned away. The older participants seem to especially enjoy watching things grow from seedlings.

A lot of individuals don't come down from their units unless they're attending the gardening activity. Many of the participants have taken a great liking to Scott. They come down to see him and to get involved in the program. They talk to him about how they're feeling; if they're sick; if they've been taking their medications. Although there are other activities taking place at the retirement facility, i.e., day trips, tours, etc., the participants don't necessarily take part. However, when it comes to gardening, there is no shortage of volunteers.

Pamela Ito heads up the Apple Seed Program, which creates a similar therapeutic and educational experience with third, fourth and fifth grade gardeners. Ito's background in environmental science has helped her create an innovative curriculum for school children from the inner city areas such as Eastern, North Central, Harlem, and Washington Heights. Teacher's from selected schools volunteer to take part in the project where Ito transforms their school yards into greenhouses. If there's no room to create a garden space outdoors, then they do a lot of indoor gardening always managing to find a place for something to grow.

The Appleseed Program is based on hard-core science, but there is a lot of room for art as well. Ito adds an artistic component through mediums such as music, or through the use of visualization. The students may actually imagine themselves as trees. This contributes to building a positive learning experience. Ito can talk to them about how they perceive themselves as a tree. They may respond by saying that they are very powerful, very beautiful, and grounded. This allows them to become the things they are surrounded by. This relates to the whole educational theory of developing schema's which reflect the fact that if you have never had the experience, how can you understand. This is the kind of knowledge that can not be acquired through reading alone. Ito tries to abandon all conventional textbooks in exchange for the true experience. The students dissect a flower in order understand its parts instead of memorizing book illustrations.

The student profile of the program primarily consists of children with developmental disabilities. Some students are living in shelters for domestic violence. All of the students receive the services through their respective schools. Most of the schools serve an at-risk population, so they are not necessarily seeking out specified students. The students are involved in the program once a week from October to May. Ito gives out awards to the students who can plant acorns that actually grow.

The students in this program work in clusters of four. It's difficult to provide materials for each and every student due to the costs involved. Each individual in the group has their own responsibilities yet they all work on the same project. Students make observations of the various plants, and they work on a rotation system. The group might work with one fruit one minute, and then might pass it on to another group for a different observation that is recorded on a chart. This allows them to flow with the basic sensory experiences of gardening. They learn the texture of a plant or flower, or how many seeds were needed for the plant to grow. Students are not the only people benefiting from the program. The teachers are always in the classroom with the students experiencing the same things they do. Horticultural therapy often becomes a mutual experience between instructors and student.

Ito is presently in the process of trying to procure grant money from foundations, which will allow HSNY to create and develop a national curriculum. A universal program plan could then be taken by any school system, with the understanding that it would be modified to the natural realities of that system's environment.

Children by waterfallAlice Marcus manages the Green Branches Project. She has brought an impressive horticultural background to HSNY, as she oversees twelve funded gardens, located at branches of the three public library systems. With 220 branch libraries in New York City this program has plenty of room to grow. According to Marcus, placing an elegantly designed garden in a poor and under-served neighborhood can serve many functions. On one level it is just as it appears a beautiful, elegant garden. However, it also has the potential to draw people who had not previously been interested in the library into the book stacks. It may even introduce a spirit of pride and volunteerism in the community. A beautiful garden may also entertain brides and grooms on a Saturday afternoon as a serene and romantic setting for wedding photos. In that sense, there's a sort of macro-horticultural therapy experience-taking place. If nothing else, a person can walk by one of these gardens and secure a great sense of pleasure. This creates a sense of well being, and a sense of connection with the community.

James Jiler heads up the Greenhouse Program. His background in Forestry and Social Ecology brings a new perspective to the Department of Correction's facility located on Riker's Island. There are really three different smaller programs in one presently active on Riker's Island. The first addresses the female population who come to the greenhouse through a high school program attached to the women's facility. This is an alternative high school that is approved by New York City Board of Education. Any woman who joins the Environmental Studies class is eligible to go out to the greenhouse as a part of her educational and vocational program.

The greenhouse is a freestanding facility surrounded by approximately 1 acres of land. This area is entirely enclosed by a security fence. The facility is a separate entity, and is not physically connected to the prison. This may afford a false sense of separation from the prison, yet it does provide some temporary relief from the realities of prison life. The program accepts violent cases in hopes that the horticultural therapy approach will transform these individuals into gentle and calm people.

Each day reflects incredible teamwork and a sense of sharing. James notes that he has observed older women enter the program who have no experience other than dealing with basic houseplant management. However, within a three-week time frame, he has been able to give these individuals the responsibility of running the greenhouse and training new participants. This responsibility creates a sense of empowerment and heightens self-esteem. This may be a very new experience for many of these women who perhaps were never able to show substantial achievement in an academic setting, or in the workplace. Within the Greenhouse Program they are able to see their achievements on a daily basis.

James has developed a newsletter entitled "Green Scene" which is written by women, and alumni from the program. All participants, who leave, receive a copy of the newsletter after their term. They are able to see how their gardens have evolved and have the opportunity to respond to various articles.

The vocational aspect of this program occurs through the former inmates who can come back to the program as members of the Greenteam. This program consists of released inmates who work as a team on various projects, and are farmed out to particular facilities in the area. This position provides the individual with paid employment until he or she can locate something more permanent.

The HSNY works actively to find alumni employment. The participants receive some innovative on-the-job-training in terms of learning how to build gardens, sculptures and maintenance. Along with instruction provided by the directors of each program, lecturers and skilled volunteers have been brought in to teach topics, such as landscape restoration. Presently, funding for the Greenteam has run out. During this inactive stage, steps are being taken to develop a more effective approach to make this a more profitable enterprise. The purpose of this is to provide a credible and dynamic after-care program that has the capacity to self-support.

The Riker's program has room to grow, and James has begun to develop another program which will strictly entail landscaping as opposed to a greenhouse work. It will involve maintaining various gardens that are being created on Riker's Island's approximately 450 acres of land. There are currently over 150 adult males in that program. It will basically be a beautification program. James hopes to create a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in the participants. He hopes that the productive, visible, satisfying, hard work can create an attitude about being job-ready and job eager.


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