by Danielle Moore
When I found myself out of work a couple years ago, I spent some time hanging around the Old Stone House garden at Washington Park in Park Slope, Brooklyn doing a little volunteer work and some herb workshops. Sam Lewis, the director of gardens (and great support and colleague), mentioned that a group from a local prevocational program was coming once a week to learn gardening skills as part of a work readiness program. I had a vague idea of what that was about but without even a thought said, “Can you introduce me? I want to meet them!”
I kind of surprised myself, I’m not really impulsive, and have even been referred to as a bit of a turtle. I quickly received an email from the program’s director and for the rest of that summer met the group weekly at OSH and at their small urban farm. (Yes, they have a farm!) By the fall, I was an employee and already planning for the next growing season.
The League Education and Treatment Center is a nonprofit organization that supports individuals of all ages living with developmental disabilities. In addition to helping to organize the farm, I am now a job coach with the Supported Employment program, where adults seeking employment can build necessary work skills from interpersonal communication, time management, and problem solving, to resume writing, interview preparation, and managing employer expectations.
Having a job can offer connections and community, increasing a person’s self-esteem and self-purpose. Yet, studies indicate those with a disability are more than three times less likely to be employed compared to those without. In addition to promoting an inclusive culture in the workplace, it is proven that hiring people with disabilities adds highly motivated people to the workforce; having had to constantly learn to adapt to their surroundings, they find unique approaches to problem solving.
At our farm we grow some veggies for fun, but most of our space is filled with peppers. Each year, in a space less than 300 sq ft., we grow over 300 lbs and up to seven different varieties— from sweet bells to habaneros. The peppers are then made into two kinds of hot sauce that are sold at the Down to Earth Farmers Market located at Washington Park at the Old Stone House (full circle moment), on our website, and also on the Heatonist.com, with the revenue helping to pay the wages of our farmers. This year, we aim to incorporate two new products to the BurnAbility line, a spice blend made from dehydrated peppers, garlic, and herbs from our farm and ChillAbility, a tea blend of tulsi, calendula, chamomile, mountain mint, and roselle hibiscus, or sorrel.
It’s pretty idyllic, our little patch of balance. Interplanting the peppers with tulsi has brought in a multitude of pollinators, and the well established mountain mint in our tiny sensory garden has welcomed blue winged wasps, offering a home base before they go out to the neighborhood and hunt grubs. Ladybugs take care of the late season aphids that come for the okra buds and the humans are not at all worried about the bugs anymore.
While I work with individuals on the farm and off, most of my caseload ends up in other occupations, working in retail, restaurants, teaching, maintenance, IT, clerical, you name it. What has struck me most in the two plus years since I was first introduced to the League Center is that there is a noticeable difference between the way individuals approach the farm and garden experiences versus any other position.
Getting a job can be scary, especially if it’s your first time. You may be unsure of what to expect, confused, definitely anxious, and these feelings can be heightened among the population that I work with for a multitude of reasons. Being around plants visibly melts away that anxiety, I see it constantly. Once anxiety is not a factor, there is a greater ability to focus, enhanced recall of tasks, and an increase in creative problem solving. Skill building at the farm and the two community based garden sites where the group volunteers (OSH and the Linden Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library in Flatbush) have proven vital to the success of the population we serve. The ability to approach a new environment after having built valuable work skills in a place where you not only feel supported—but at ease—provides a huge leg up for the folks in our program.
In my experience, plants seem find a way to bring people to the place where they need to be. I went to college for ornamental horticulture, studied herbalism at ArborVitae, and also studied horticulture therapy through NYBG, a plant-based scholastic trifecta comprised of a long and winding 20+ year ramble through exploring connection with nature. And it brought me here, to this new career path, one that I hadn’t really expected but somehow was kind of always preparing for. I feel so grateful that I am able to share my knowledge in this way, and that I am fortunate enough to collaborate with and learn from the individuals that attend our program.
An ArborVitae alum, Danielle Moore has 20 years of experience working in various aspects of horticulture and agriculture, including sustainable farming, nursery management, sales and greenhouse production, as well as creating urban and rural gardens focused on herb and vegetable cultivation.