From the ground up

In a unique program, residents of Akim-Jerusalem’s hostels become organic gardening specialists.

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By Amihai Zippor

On a narrow strip of land alongside an unassuming building in Talpiot, Tzachi Even-Or of the Shomera Environmental Group and Dani, one of the residents at Akim-Jerusalem’s hostels for the mentally and physically disabled, survey the fruits of an organic garden both organizations aided in producing. “Look at the broccoli. It’s amazing!”

Even-Or says as he and Dani kneel down and break off a piece to sample. In addition to broccoli the garden includes celery stalks, tall lettuce and bright red strawberries, all ready for picking. Also, a unique species of flower is dispersed throughout the plot that aids in repelling insects from the promising garden, which is the centerpiece of the new Gardening Center inaugurated with the help of Shomera in May. The partnership between Akim and Shomera began after representatives from the latter offered to run a horticultural therapy program for Akim’s clients, with the aim of helping the mentally and physically challenged explore sensory and emotional skills through a new activity, while at the same time become educated on how to protect the environment. Akim raised the necessary funds and encouraged their residents’ involvement; Shomera provided the personnel and know-how to renovate and sustain a dilapidated hothouse next to Akim’s hostel, and to maintain “green” areas on the foundation’s property, including a herb and vegetable garden. In some cases the work meant just cleaning up the premises, but Shomera’s workers and volunteers also had to completely refurbish the greenhouse, which had not been used for years.

They searched for recyclable materials such as used olive cans for starter pots, plastic plating for the walls and roof, and flat Jerusalem stone for the hothouse’s gravel floor, making it wheelchair accessible. In the end the joint venture exceeded everyone’s expectations and the Gardening Center transformed 18 Akim participants into specialists in healthy organic gardening. “The fact that it was organic gardening that Shomera presented was a perfect fit for us, because we very much care about the well-being of our residents,” Akim-Jerusalem’s project manager Dalia Poran says. “The people get motivated because they understand the process of the plant, that it is small and it grows and we have to go to an even bigger pot. They begin to understand the seasons and what it does for the plant and they are able to view the entire process of nature.”

Furthermore, Poran explains that the life cycle of plants aid in their continued development, giving the opportunity to explore a range of feelings. “When a plant dies they are sad, and when they see something bright and green it makes them happy. They are able to express many emotions through gardening, a peaceful activity that allows some of the more aggressive residents to feel calm.” Shomera community and public relations spokesperson Miriam Ratzersdorfer agrees, saying she is “impressed that many of the participants in the course really understand the concepts being taught and that the activity has enhanced their sense of self.” “Having contact with the ground and then ultimately seeing the products that they produce, smelling the flowers, tasting the vegetables – they know they’ve created something of value for themselves and others, which is very empowering for them,” she says. Noting that for Akim the activity is not just another gardening class “to keep their clients busy” but that “it really takes them from one stage to the next,” she credits Even-Or, who is described as the “heart and soul” behind Shomera’s programming, for instilling in the students a strong sense of pride.

A licensed and master organic gardener completing a bachelors program in psychology, Even-Or has worked in the horticultural therapy field for almost 10 years. Standing in the rebuilt hothouse, he points to the many seedlings Akim participants have grown and either hope to transplant around the Akim hostels or sell to the public to raise money for future activities. “I think they are happy,” Even-Or says. “It’s important for them to touch the soil and work with it. For them to feel that they’re doing something and taking responsibility for the plants, that they have something they can take care of and something they are in charge of – it’s very strong for them.” When asked if it truly matters if therapy through gardening is organic or not, Even-Or responds, “When you’re working with people trying to help them therapeutically, and you’re using chemicals or poison in the process, I think you miss the whole point.”

Still, the main benefit for the participants is what they internalize from the activity. Shomera’s founder and chairperson Tamar Gindis asserted that in many other projects, such as those involving art, “you make it and immediately have it, but here you plant it and you have to have patience and often people with special needs don’t have the ability to wait long periods of time.” “Eventually they develop and nurture this ability, which benefits them in the long run,” she adds. “It comes back to them and they’re gratified for something they produced.”

Initiatives such as this one require strong financial backing in addition to government funding, and without generous gifts from the Rochlin and Jerusalem Foundations the gardening project wouldn’t have happened. Despite the uphill battle to secure funding, recognition of the importance of projects like the gardening center was evident in the presence of Welfare Ministry representative Miriam Cohen at the inauguration event. “What happened here is that Akim-Jerusalem is always looking for new ideas for the residents, and this hothouse and gardening center is one of those projects that they [can] benefit from,” Cohen said. Because of the success of the project she pledged that “the Welfare Ministry, which has supported Akim in the past, will continue to support Akim in the future. We will also continue to help Akim find donors in order to fund special projects like this one, so that they will not always have to rely only on the budget provided for them by the government.”

For Stefan Rothschild, Akim’s director of External Relations and Resource Development, this was good news since, as he acknowledges, it can be a struggle to provide good care. “At the bottom of it all… is the extent to which we think that persons with special needs are worthy of good care. The quality of service that you will see reflects those values, and they differ from service provider to service provider.”

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