Heart felt, hand held

Horticulture therapy helps the disabled to connect to the land and each other.

On a sunlit terrace in Kiryat Moshe, a group of young adults are tending their community garden, getting ready to pick vine-ripened organic cherry tomatoes and hot chili peppers. Across town, in Ein Kerem, workers from Hadassah Hospital are growing organic herbs for patients' tea, as well as organic vegetables and flowers. But these are no ordinary gardening groups. All the participants are adults with special needs. And the gardening is much more than an end in itself. It is also a form of rehabilitation known as horticulture therapy. The therapeutic horticulture and community gardening project is an innovative undertaking by Jerusalem's Shomera Lesviva Tova (Guardian for a Good Environment), a non-profit organization founded in Har Nof in 1998, which is well-known for its initiatives in environmental education and activism. Over the past four years, Shomera has become a leader in the field of horticulture therapy in Israel, developing a program that motivates children and young adults with special needs to set up and maintain local organic gardens. For these endeavors, Shomera was awarded the Ford Motor Company Conservation and Environmental Grant, Israel 2005, in a ceremony on September 6, 2005. The award follows on the heels of the Jerusalem Mayor's Award for a Voluntary Organization 2005, which Shomera also received for this same program. "Horticulture therapy has been around for at least 3,000 years, from the days of ancient Egypt," states Tzachi Even-Or, who leads all of Shomera's horticulture therapy activities. "It involves working not just with plants but also with people. The idea is very popular in the world today and is now catching on in Israel." "There is something about being in nature and touching the earth that has a tremendous influence on people, causing them to open up and blossom," explains Ohad Greiner, director general of Shomera. "We see our program as strengthening the connection between individuals with special needs and the rest of the population, while improving the appearance of Jerusalem. The populations we deal with [are] a neglected part of the community, one whose talents we help to develop." The Shomera horticulture therapy program works with institutions or organizations catering to either adults or children with special needs, including multiply handicapped, blind, autistic and mentally challenged individuals, as well as individuals who experience other handicaps and challenges. Activities center around ongoing, weekly gardening classes on a plot of land belonging to the specific institution for which the program is being conducted. Participants learn to value and care for the environment by working the land and recycling activities. How did Shomera become involved in horticulture therapy? "There are a lot of other organizations promoting the environment," Greiner notes. "We did not want to duplicate their efforts, so we decided to find our own niche." The initial effort was aimed at youth at risk, rather than the disabled. "In 2001, there was a problem of haredi dropouts in Har Nof boys not studying and using drugs," Greiner continues. "We were asked by the community to create an emergency project for these kids. So we started a gardening program in the Jerusalem Forest. The boys would come every morning and work in the garden. The program was a great success. Some of the boys went on to join the army. Others went back to yeshiva." A few months later, the matnas (community center) in Givat Shaul asked Shomera to do a gardening project with blind girls at the Institute for the Blind in Kiryat Moshe. This project led to Shomera's working with special needs populations. "Our horticulture therapy program is different," Greiner continues. "Generally, other programs take social workers and teach them something about gardening. We did the opposite. We brought in a gardening specialist, Tzachi, and taught him about social work. "We do more serious gardening than most programs. That is our attraction. Also our approach is one of 'no pity.' Everyone takes part and is able to contribute no matter how severe his or her limitations. No one is any different from anyone else in this respect. "And that is why the participants love this program." Shomera works with an institution or group for a limited period of time. "Our aim is to teach each group to be self-sustaining within at most three years. After that, we get out and move on," Greiner relates. The Institute for the Blind is now running its own program and Hadassah Hospital in Ein-Kerem is taking over its horticulture project this year. This approach has enabled Shomera to expand from 10 participants to 80 on a limited budget. At Hadassah Hospital, some 15 mentally challenged workers take part in the project in the framework of the Michzur (Recycling) Unit, growing organic vegetables, flowers and herbs. They bring the herbs to the hospital kitchen where they are used for making tea for the patients. The vegetables are for their own consumption. "Our workers in this project are equal but different," states Ilana Agat, project coordinator for Michzur. "But we are healthy and we can take care of and help the sick. This project fosters feelings of responsibility and control. We are helping the sick to feel better by offering soothing, organic herbal teas. If we didn't tend this garden, no such tea would be available. This is our special contribution." At Keren Or for the blind, Shomera works with two classes of multiply handicapped blind children, ranging in age from 10 to 16. "Gardening is not only a fun experience but also an educational one," says Naomi Yisachar, educational director. "It teaches our students touch, smell and taste. It is hands-on therapy. It gives them a feeling that they can do things too." "I am really impressed with Tzachi," enthuses Simon Lawrence, a classroom teacher at Keren Or. "From the very first session, he connected with the kids. He has an amazing way with people." For some, it is very difficult to work with multiply handicapped blind, who, in addition to being sightless, may also be mentally handicapped, autistic, or suffer from cerebral palsy and severe physical limitations. Yet with tremendous patience, warmth and love, Even-Or seems to be able to reach out to each and every person. "When working with the blind, you have to choose plants that have special scents and textures, or whose leaves rustle," Even-Or explains. "There is also the aspect of taste. It is through these senses that the blind experience the world. The aim is not just to have an organic garden but also to get the participants to do some physical work in the outdoors. I try to build a program that integrates society, therapy and ecology, as well as having a social and communal aspect. The participants learn to work with others and they contribute to the environment, beautifying their community. But most importantly, the project has to be kef (fun). If it is not, then it is not worth doing." The group at Avukat Or does gardening by feel. They feel the pot, the soil and the leaves. Then, they feel the fruit and pick it. "I like to stress color with this group," Even-Or adds. "They may be blind but they are still interested in knowing what color a tomato is, or a cucumber or an eggplant." Gently, Even-Or takes Elinoar, a young woman who is blind and autistic, and guides her hand to the ripening tomato vine. "Do you feel this?" he asks. "It is the tomato. Now, pull on it and put it in this tub here. After we pick the tomatoes, we will make salad." With Ariel, who suffers from cerebral palsy and who has limited physical dexterity, Even-Or picks some verbena (Louisa) and brings them to him. "Can you smell the leaves?" he continues. "Can you feel them? What do we do with these leaves? Yes, we make tea from them. Do you want tea? At the end, we will all have tea." He moves on to the chili peppers. "These peppers are red like the tomatoes. Today, we are picking red vegetables. But the peppers are hot and we will not eat them." He takes Motti, who has limited vision, and helps him to find a large red pepper and twist it off. "I want to tell you that this project is also therapeutic for me. It relaxes me and lets me spend my time out in the sun, touching the earth and smelling the plants. Gardening is a wonderful tool for helping and enriching people's lives," Even-Or concludes.