Making a garden inclusive to people with all types of disabilities is not difficult to do and the benefits are as abundant as the harvest, says master gardener and former special education teacher Sonya Harris.
“I got into gardening as a special education teacher looking for something different to help my children who I knew had skills but just needed something hands-on,” Harris said. “During that time that I had the garden there, I got to see the benefit that it had for our children that had different types of (intellectual or developmental disabilities) and also for adults.”
Now, through a grant from the New Jersey Division of Disability Services, Rowan University, Harris’ nonprofit Bullock Garden Project in Glassboro, Backyard Gardens, LLC, and the Atlantic County-based C.R.O.P.S. are working together to create or renovate seven community gardens across three counties in South Jersey to make them inclusive to people who have disabilities.
There are many ways to do so, from raised beds and wide, smooth pathways for wheelchair access to adding Braille signs for those with visual impairments to removing sensory-stimulating items like wind chimes and spinning fans for those with autism.
“So often it’s really not that hard to change the way you design and operate your services, your space, your business. And by making these simple changes, it can become possible for a person with a disability to participate,” said project director Leslie Spencer, a professor in the department of health and exercise science at Rowan University. “It doesn’t have to cost that much money or take that much effort to make these changes.”
Harris, whose nonprofit is named for the elementary school where she taught for 15 years, said the first garden she built in 2014 for her students had similar issues to the gardens the grant will help renovate.
“I saw where we had inequities in that garden, like getting a wheelchair across it, so I was like, ‘Oh, no, we have to fix it,’” she said. “It’s just taking a step back and looking at a garden space from a different point of view. There’s no reason why every single person and every single school can’t grow food.”
Two of the gardens will be in Atlantic County working through the partner organization C.R.O.P.S. (Communities Revolutionizing Open Public Spaces).
Founder Paige Vaccaro of Linwood said she started C.R.O.P.S. in 2016 after moving to South Jersey after living in big cities. She saw people and businesses struggling and wanted to help the community thrive by increasing access to fresh food.
Her first project — a farmers market in Linwood — was successful, and she and her partner Alicia Newcomb began to expand by creating community gardens. Vaccaro met Harris at a gardening conference, and the two decided to collaborate. That collaboration led to their partnering for this grant. The Atlantic County inclusive gardens will be in Egg Harbor City working in partnership with city government, and in Pleasantville working with the Arc of Atlantic County.
“For us, one of our first community garden sites was in Atlantic City at the Covenant House, so we have been working with homeless youth from day one,” Vaccaro said, adding that autism is a factor that can lead to homelessness.
Vaccaro said her organization is passionate about not having fences, literal or figurative, at their gardens.
“So inclusivity is always on our mind,” she said.
Spencer, who has been running a program to serve people with disabilities since 2008, focusing on nutrition and fitness, said the inclusive garden project expands what she is already doing through Rowan University.
“The focus of this grant is really building inclusion into places in the community so that all the public and commercial venues that community residents use, they could become more open and welcoming for people with disabilities,” Spencer said, adding that increasing food access during the COVID-19 pandemic has become particularly important as prices increase.
She said that it’s also a social justice and equity issue.
Spencer said that many people with disabilities also tend to be lower income, so accessing fresh produce can be harder for them. It also is a physical activity and promotes investment in one’s own nutrition.
“One of the nicest ways to get people to try fresh fruits and vegetables is if they’re growing them,” Spencer said. “We’ve also found a lot of community garden groups are very socially minded, and they really want to look for ways to serve the community and look for ways to give back. There’s a real openness and enthusiasm among these groups. They’re excited.”
In addition to C.R.O.P.S., partner gardens include:
Branch Village (Parkside Business and Community in Partnership), Camden
Kroc Center, Camden
Glassboro Community Gardens, Glassboro
Williamstown Organic Community Garden “Sustainable Monroe Township,” Williamstown
For more information, visit the project website at www.planviz.org/inclusive-community-gardens.
Contact Claire Lowe: