Over the past 4 years more than 100 adults with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other developmental disabilities have participated in the innovative Horticulture Program at the Charles River Center.
Under the direction of Charles River Center Program Coordinator Mike Bolio, who created the Horticulture Program in 2014, vegetables, flowers, native plant and fruit trees are grown and cared for throughout the year. The program is modeled around what a typical season looks like for a New England farm. Working side by side, Mike and program participants start in late winter, sowing seeds in the Charles River Center greenhouse, and once spring arrives, begin transplanting them at the Needham Community Farm. From there, participants assist in all daily farming operations such as weeding, watering, harvesting, creating flower bouquets and drying herbs. In addition to daily activities at the Needham Community Farm, the Horticulture Program has developed relationships with neighboring farms and the Mass Audubon by volunteering with animals at Land Sake’s Farm (rabbits), Drumlin Farm (chickens) and Belmont Habitat and Wildlife Sanctuary (goats). Once the growing season has subsided around the end of November, horticulture centered activities are continued. These include creating tea and spice blends from dried peppers and herbs grown earlier in the year, making wreaths with found materials during nature walks, propagating new plants to take home from cuttings and tapping maple trees for maple syrup.
The collaboration between the Charles River Center and the Needham Community Farm, which began in 2014, has grown from the Charles River Center renting a single raised bed to now working alongside with NCF Farm Manager Theresa Strachila participating in all farming operations. Collaborations include the Mobile Market, which runs one night per week from June until October. The market, which has grown in popularity over the past few years, switches weekly between four Needham Housing neighborhoods distributing vegetables, flowers and fruits from the Charles River Center’s mobile farm stand. New this year is a Flower CSA which is collaboration between both programs and will provide paid employment to program participants.
The beneficial nature of participating in the program comes through in many ways. Participants develop agricultural knowledge, communication and customer service skills for possible future employment, physical benefits of enhanced fine and gross motor skills, greater strength, and an increased awareness of good nutrition; and therapeutic benefits including increased social interaction, communication and team building skills, stress reduction, and a rewarding sense of responsibility and accomplishment. Additionally, the eagerness and excitement of wanting to grow things has extended outside of program hours for our individuals. As a result, several Charles River Center group residences have installed their very own backyard gardens to enjoy from during the season.
Mike Bolio says, “The impact the individual participants have and continue to have on this community goes well beyond just looking impressive on paper; on a daily basis they are not only improving themselves but also helping their fellow community members by providing fresh and healthy food options from the vegetables they help to grow. The look of accomplishment after every harvest on the individual’s faces is something I will never grow tired of seeing.”