Women living in Lawrence residential treatment center find therapy in gardening

photo by: Kathy Hanks

Garden volunteer Elise Gard, left, a freshman at the University of Kansas; Michael Margherio, executive director, sales and account management of UnitedHealthcare of Kansas; and garden volunteer Alex Gard, a Free State High School junior, look over the heads of cabbage Wednesday in the garden at DCCCA First Step at Lake View, a residential drug treatment facility. UnitedHealthcare of Kansas donated $3,600 for a garden sprinkler system and 16 fruit trees.

Chellie Doonan hopes that working in the garden during the coming weeks while going through treatment at DCCCA First Step at Lake View, a residential drug treatment facility in Lawrence, will bring her peace of mind.

“I can get out of my head,” she said, by digging in the dirt.

The garden is where Doonan can find serenity while working on getting her life back on track. Plus, she says there is a bonus.

“It’s rewarding to know you’ll eat what comes out of the garden,” Doonan said.

This is the second year for DCCCA’s partnership with The Merc’s Growing Food Growing Hope garden plot for women and their children living at Lake View.

If the huge heads of buttercrunch and red lettuce harvested Wednesday afternoon are any indication, it’s going to be a bountiful summer in the garden.

After being harvested and washed, leafy greens and radishes were taken to Lake View’s kitchen, where they would be included in the salad bar.

The garden is made possible through the Community Mercantile Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization that also oversees the West Middle School garden. They employ student gardeners ages 14 and older to work and learn about horticulture. Young gardeners work with Nancy O’Connor, education and outreach director, and Jim Lewis, project assistant.

“All the women want to help outside,” said Ashley Countryman, clinical coordinator. The garden space only allows for three or four of the women to work at a time. That’s because the volunteers with Growing Food Growing Hope are teaching at the same time. The women are learning such things as how to know when the vegetables are ripe enough to pick.

photo by: Kathy Hanks

A chalkboard notifies the volunteers of what needs to be done in the garden.

Last year, the garden produced 750 pounds of vegetables, O’Connor estimated. They lost crops because of the drought and the difficulty in getting things watered all the time.

However, they used everything harvested in the treatment center’s kitchen.

“We would adjust menus around what was coming out of the garden,” Countryman said. “We found ways to incorporate them into every meal. We thought if there had been any extra we would have donated to Just Food (a Douglas County food bank), but there wasn’t any.”

This year, O’Connor is hopeful they can harvest 1,000 pounds out of the garden.

“It’s looking pretty good so far,” O’Connor said.

Jim Lewis, a project assistant, picks lettuce at The Merc’s Growing Food Growing Hope garden plot for women and their children living at DCCCA’s First Step Lake View. This is the second year for the partnership which teaches the women residents about gardening and eating fresh food.

Plus, an advantage this year will be a sprinkler system.

On Wednesday afternoon, Michael Margherio, executive director, sales and account management of UnitedHealthcare of Kansas, was at the garden making plans to come back Saturday with some employees to help do some heavy lifting in the garden.

Caring for the whole person

“This is gorgeous,” Margherio said, surveying the plot. He explained that UnitedHealthcare of Kansas gave several community grants across the state. When he heard about the garden at Lake View, he knew it fit with their approach to health care. They made a donation of $3,600 for the sprinkler system and 16 fruit trees.

“We’re not just talking about going to your doctor’s visit or your insurance plan,” Margherio said, “but all of the things that surround you. Your housing situation and food security or insecurity, it all affects your health and well-being in the community, and we’re trying to improve the community health.”

Garden assistants, siblings Alex, 14, and Elise Gard, 19, were busy harvesting and pulling weeds along with Lewis as Margherio toured the garden.

“This is health care,” O’Connor said, nodding toward the garden — staying healthy, being proactive.

A place to heal

The Douglas County Citizens Committee on Alcoholism was founded in 1974 over concern for people who struggled with alcohol abuse. By 1978, the treatment services expanded to six other Kansas counties, according to dccca.org.

At one time, Lake View had been a nursing home, Countryman said. However, more than 10 years ago, it became a treatment center for women ages 17 into their 80’s suffering from substance use disorders and mental illness.

“Whatever the range, we take them,” Countryman said.

Some of the women bring their children with them during treatment. Clare Ballard, the day care coordinator of the children’s program, said the children have so much fun in the garden with their mothers that they are adding a children’s garden, complete with a bean teepee.

Last year, after they began harvesting from the garden, O’Connor asked if she could teach cooking classes to the residents on how to use the food from the garden. She also taught them where they could find healthy food when they were no longer at the treatment center. She now does this twice a month, alternating with staff from Just Food so that the women get a weekly cooking class.

“The impact is in knowing where your food is coming from and having a hand in growing your food, and picking and eating it,” Countryman said. “I know the kids picked the cherry tomatoes and then they were having them for a snack, learning where their food was coming from.”

Doonan said the cooking classes have introduced her to foods she would never eat, and she appreciates the experience.

“Before the cooking class, I never had lentils before, and I wouldn’t eat onions or peppers,” Doonan said. “I eat everything they cook.”

Some of the residents have told O’Connor the garden gives them hope. Although many of the women leave after 28 days, they talk to O’Connor about how they are gardening for the women who come after them.

One connection O’Connor sees is when the women come out to the garden, they might not have had good parenting, but they have memories of grandparents in the garden.

“One story I hear repeatedly when they come to the garden, ‘I remember my grandmother.’ I think the garden is a connection to a past that was healthy, simpler, a time that was different than their current reality,” O’Connor said.

Along with the tangible opportunities for learning about gardening, eating fresh foods and participating in cooking classes, Sandra Dixon, director of behavioral health for DCCCA, mentioned other, less obvious things have an immense impact on the women’s recovery.

“The opportunity to interact with community members who listen to their stories without judgment, who show unconditional respect and support, encourages confidence and self-worth,” Dixon said. “Nancy, Jim and their team do more than garden at First Step. They touch women’s hearts and instill hope.”


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