Many of our students, particularly those who are incarcerated on serious charges, are defined by the public, and sometimes their own families, by their crimes. The GreenHouse staff is dedicated to connecting with the individual, looking past their stories and viewing them as gardeners. Efforts would not be successful without interns that not only offer a helping hand but an open heart and a patient smile. The following are reflections from our interns about the GreenHouse and the transformative power of nature.
“Some of the tangible therapeutic benefits of horticulture therapy are well-known, such as fresh air, exercise, and stress-reduction. In my experience, it also improves self-esteem, mental focus, and cooperation. The most profound benefit I’ve witnessed at the GreenHouse: a connection with nature, with the cycle of life, produces a regenerative effect.
The interactions between plant and humans are at times almost astounding. We work with one young man who is charged with murder for strangling a fellow patient while he was committed to a mental institution. Early on, he said that he felt that there was no hope for him because he had “gone too far to the dark side.” The longer he is with us, the more he opens up. He has a sweet disposition and now he allows himself to smile, laugh, and joke with fellow students. Recently, he made a poster of the seeds he selected to plant and wrote next to one picture: “I want to hug this flower.” I highlight him because I think his transformation captures the magic of horticulture therapy. Prior to working at the GreenHouse, I had no idea of the spiritual ramifications of gardening. The longer I’m there, the more I’m convinced of a sacred connection between plants and humans.
Working one-on-one with us, our students are able to share concerns, hopes, sorrows, hurt, and joy. We are not in a rush, and nature reminds us to practice deep listening. We share stories and we laugh; sometimes we cry. Part of deep listening in the Greenhouse is to listen not just to what is spoken, but to what is silent. The inmates at Rikers don’t choose to be together, almost never get to be alone, and rarely experience any quiet. The young men complain that their dorm is extremely loud and that they never get uninterrupted sleep. With us, they are slow to speak. In gardening, we allow for silence as we work, so that they have room to share. While we do not eliminate the suffering of incarceration, we make it easier to bear.”
Hillary “Scout” Exter
“Spending time at the GreenHouse is an extraordinary experience on so many levels—the contrast between being “outside” and “inside” takes on a new meaning. The garden is a wild place — no manicured lawns here —but it’s also a very peaceful one. It is a feast for the senses in an otherwise bleak and stark place: the colors, textures, fragrances of the garden, the sounds of birds, the taste of the food we have grown, the sun and breezes and drizzles always delight me.
I love seeing each gardener find his or her special places within the garden. Whether it’s the rose wheel, pond, flock of guinea hens, raised bed vegetables, melon patch, vines dripping down on the pergola’s, students always take ownership of a particular area or task. There are so many lessons to learn and to grow from. Students experience how to work as a team and follow instructions — and the consequences of not (e.g. a seed too deep won’t germinate). Together they foster patience, like waiting for guinea hen eggs to hatch, and the importance of proper care. They recognize their actions or inactions, such as watering plants to foster growth, enabling them to see their work through the season – taking joy in the cycles of life.
I have come to the GreenHouse as a beginner gardener and I have learned so much from working with Hilda, Sarah, Deb, my fellow interns, and the gardener’s who are incarcerated. With sleeves rolled up, hands in the dirt, beads of sweat visible on our brows, we are all immersed in a common endeavor—the science and miracle of observing and helping things grow.”
“There are numerous spots in the Greenhouse garden where you can look up and all around you and forget, if only for a second, that you are on Rikers Island. It can be restorative and rejuvenating to embrace those small moments and then focus on the task at hand.
In the Greenhouse garden, inmates and interns are students, gardeners, landscapers, chefs and teachers. We learn how to prune roses and how to delicately water seedlings. We learn that weeding really can be relaxing. We learn when to talk and when to listen and that often, just being in the space together and working toward a common goal is enough. We learn that ladybugs flap their wings 85 times per second. We learn about the types of melon. We learn so much, so we can know ourselves.
Circling the rose wheel, climbing into the guinea hen coop, getting lost in the melon patch or weaving your way through raised beds filled with vegetables, herbs, and fruit, everywhere you turn there is proof that someone’s curiosity and care has made it all possible.”