It’s been a year of growth for people with developmental disabilities who are involved in three DeSoto County programs.
The growth for the adults who are involved in programs through Millcreek of Hernando, Region IV The Hub in Olive Branch and REM Blossom in Southaven has come both literally and socially.
The social growth was part of the goal for the first straw bale garden program enacted through the Arc Northwest Mississippi and the Autism Assistance Fund with the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi.
People involved in the program do their own planting into straw bales instead of digging into the dirt, said Wayne Bartley of the Autism Assistance Fund.
“With a straw bale garden, you can basically put it anywhere,” Bartley said. “The big benefit for the ease of care is that there is no weeding. You get straw bales, condition them with fertilizer and water for 10 days to two weeks. Then you plant directly in them using something like a Miracle Gro-type top soil.”
The community garden concept is something Arc of Northwest Mississippi Executive Director Rebecca Treadway said was an idea her organization has been working toward for some time.
“Since the very beginning of the Arc (Northwest Mississippi), we’ve talked about doing a garden project, whether doing a large farm or just trying to create an environment that was inclusive for individuals with disabilities to enjoy gardening,” Treadway said. “We were first going to try and do a straw bale garden at one location where everyone came in. One thing led to another and that wasn’t working out to be convenient for all of the other partners with us. We ended up doing three straw bale gardens at different program locations.”
Funding for the garden project, which is now in its harvesting phase, came from the state with matching money from the Autism Assistance Fund.
“We wrote a grant with the Mississippi Council on Developmental Disabilities,” said Treadway. “They provided some of the funding for this project. The Autism Assistance Fund with the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi was the match money for it.”
DeSoto County Master Gardeners, led by Pam Selby, came in, conditioned the bales, but the program participants chose what they wanted to plant, did the actual planting and took care of their plants through the summer.
Beyond the actual harvest, Treadway said the program has succeeded in other ways.
“The biggest thing everyone talks about it is the social communication that has been spurred in the participants,” Treadway noted. “People, even at the same program who had never talked to each other before now have common ground. It’s something else they can now talk about and have created closer social bonds.”
Bartley, who has an adult son with autism, said the social component is important because it fights what could otherwise become a lifetime of loneliness.
“Easter Seals, several years ago, did some research that said the average adult with disabilities had on average less than one friend,” Bartley noted. “As a parent, that’s just a gut punch to think that’s what my son has to look forward to. We just can’t have that.”
Bartley added programs like Millcreek, Region IV The Hub and REM Blossom also give their clients opportunities to become more productive people and a hope for the future.
“Five years ago, we had no day programs for someone who ages out at age 21,” Bartley said. “If they couldn’t go to work, if they’re developmentally challenged or more profoundly impacted by the disability, they had no place to go. Now, we have four programs in the county. From servicing zero five years ago, we’re servicing about 150 now.”
Joe Earp, Director of the Millcreek facility, said he has noticed the improvements in relational skills.
“It’s quite gratifying to see the growing of relationships among our clients that are in the program here,” Earp said. “They’re sharing, they’re working together, they are experiencing a shared happiness. It brought the group even closer together and I think they have experienced a lot of personal satisfaction in seeing the garden take place.”
While watching flowers or plants grow this summer, those served by places such as Millcreek, Region IV Hub and REM Blossom have also been nurtured in their own lives. Earp said Millcreek will continue the program next year. “We think the gardening aspect is just another element that keeps them engaged, gives them another activity,” Bartley added. “They have ownership in something that’s theirs and I think that’s really, really important.”
Bob Bakken is Staff Writer for the DeSoto Times-Tribune.