Garden yields more than herbs, veggies for disabled students

Grand Junction High School students Royce Neely, right, and Nichole Lanzl, second from right, clear a row of tomato plants of debris in the InSTEPS Program’s garden at the Career Center.  InSTEPS is a transitional program eligible to students with disabilities who have finished their traditional education.

Near the corner of 29 Road and North Avenue, a garden grows. It’s a garden that grows more than vegetables and herbs and flowers. It grows relationships, skills and independence for disabled young adults.

This spring, participants in the InSTEPS Program dug into the hard, clay soil behind their modular at the Career Center and started their first garden. They started seeds with help from the neighboring floriculture program’s greenhouse. They grew herbs and flowers and even decided to branch into vegetables they could eat themselves.

And they had to work together.

Cooperative skills have been one of the major benefits for participants in the program, said InSTEPS teacher Christine Kisselburgh.

The program’s acronym stands for Individual Student-Centered Transition Employment Program Services. Students with disabilities who finish their traditional education within Mesa County Valley School District 51 are eligible for the transitional program. This means young adults age 18–21 come to InSTEPS to learn how to become more independent and how to navigate the “real world.” There were 12 students in the program this school year, and at least 15 are expected next year.

Before the InSTEPS program existed, participants may have continued attending regular school until they turned 21.

But this program offers them much more in the realm of life skills.

This is where gardening comes in.

Kisselburgh wanted students to learn how to manage money, how to be responsible and complete work tasks, how to plan their own meals and make their own food. She wanted them to practice their social skills, interacting with each other and with strangers in public. She wanted them to learn mobility skills, like how to get around on public transit. And she wanted them to learn what it’s like to work, to complete tasks and cooperate with others.

The garden is a perfect practical application for many of these skills.

“The reason behind starting the garden was to start a fresh herb business,” Kisselburgh said. InSTEPS wanted a way to raise money consistently, to fund scholarships for participants, who are responsible for the cost of their meals and activities. They also need money for other incidental things that come with having a job, such as uniforms or non-skid shoes to work in a kitchen.

“A lot of my kids are on scholarships so we needed to do fundraising to make it possible for them to come,” Kisselburgh said. “We don’t want shoes to stop a kid from having a job.”

Although the money part of the garden business was its main purpose, the skills her students are learning from starting and maintaining the garden are invaluable.

“Having to work cooperatively with each other has been huge,” Kisselburgh said.

Hauling dirt, shoveling rocks and getting dirty together has really helped them build relationships and learn that hard work pays off.

“They had to rely on each other and everyone had to do their fair share so that’s been a really good benefit,” she said.

Another plus has been practicing what Kisselburgh calls “soft skills,” which are socially accepted behaviors or interpersonal skills. Hard skills might get a person a job, but the soft skills can be a deal breaker if, for example, a person with autism doesn’t communicate well with a customer or blurts out something inappropriate. Interacting with coworkers and customers is key to many jobs.

The InSTEPS garden started with growing herbs for sale to the public. After participants started that, they wanted to grow their own tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, since they make their own lunches every day.

“We made a whole garden just for them, so when they cook their lunches, they’ll get to go in the garden and harvest some of the vegetables,” Kisselburgh said.

Enjoying the fruits of their labors is just another benefit of the garden. But Kisselburgh said the most important things the garden grows are the social skills and work ethic for these young adults.

The InSTEPS garden, on the Career Center campus at 2935 North Ave., currently has a variety of herbs (sage, rosemary, parsley, oregano, etc.) for sale and can be contacted through the Extended School Year program through the second week of July at 254-6028. They plan to resume herb sales at the beginning of the school year.

Erin McIntyre is an advanced master gardener, writer and Grand Valley native. Please email her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) with story ideas or feedback.


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