Growth Opportunity

T he Edgerton Park greenhouse buzzed with conversation and laughter as the staff and participants of G.R.O.W.E.R.S. Inc., a nonprofit retail horticultural program run in part by adults with developmental and physical disabilities, conferred about newly assigned morning tasks. Executive director Scott Hickman introduced me to participant Steffen, who showed me plants he’s transplanted and listed what he likes: landscaping, working in the community garden, working with plants, the Christmas trees and the Greenbrier School, the program’s educational component—“everything here,” he says. “I’m blessed to have this job when I wake up every morning. I’m blessed to come here, to work.”

Others seemed to feel the same way as they said hello and chatted with me before I went out to the garden with Hickman and Doug, another participant. Doug runs “the experiment team,” recording weekly observations and heading up discussions with a rotating co-leader. “We’re trying to see what the effects would be of pruning and not pruning,” he says while surveying pepper, eggplant and tomato plants in an experimental plot.

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Doug has been part of G.R.O.W.E.R.S. since it began operating in 2012. With a mission to provide “horticultural education, employment opportunities and therapy for adults with developmental and physical disabilities,” it replaced a similar effort run by Easter Seals and also headed by Hickman. That first year, the Connecticut Department of Developmental Services “limited us to 10 people because they wanted to make sure we could succeed. And now we’re up to 33 people in the program,” Hickman says.

In addition to volunteers, Hickman, program director Keyla Ortiz and four to five job coaches interact daily with the participants, about 10 of whom had also contributed to the predecessor program. “At least a few people have been here for 20 years,” Hickman notes. Typically, he says, people find their way to G.R.O.W.E.R.S. through their caseworker, and if the fit is good, they tend to stay.

Different elements appeal to different folks. Doug identified the landscaping cohort as being particularly happy with their work. Hickman commented on a social aspect: Many “work with their best friend.” And everyone can opt into the Greenbrier educational activities, like the Reading Club that last read Watership Down or yoga or hiking in West Rock Park. Schooling is voluntary except for customer relations training—how to greet a customer or answer the phone, and for those who want to, make proper change.

Participants get paid for their work, and because of state funding rules, that money is generated by G.R.O.W.E.R.S. itself. In addition to accepting donations, they do so through sales of plants, Christmas wreaths and trees, landscaping and, in the last year, a pilot program raising and selling microgreens. Plans are in the works to grow mushrooms, and experimenting with hydroponics may be on the horizon.

Enriching the experience further is the opportunity to interact with and provide a service to the broader community. From the beginning, Hickman saw “how huge it was for the community to be involved in what we’re doing… To me that’s the most important part.”

G.R.O.W.E.R.S. Inc.
Edgerton Park – 71 Cliff St, New Haven (map)
(203) 777-1886

Written and photographed by Heather Jessen.

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Heather Jessen is a poet and writer who likes asking questions. She’s in awe of the educators, artists and social workers who’ve helped New Haven kids and families during the pandemic.

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