It All Goes Back to the Garden

Two things led me to this little post of mine. The first being a presentation I gave yesterday titled “Gardens of Cleveland.” The second is a small speech that I’m giving at the beginning of May. I met with the Educational Resource Center of Cuyahoga County a few weeks ago after they contacted NAMI in need of a speaker. I told them my story. In it, I mentioned the garden program that was so much a part of my life from the summer after 3rd grade until I graduated. The impact it had has always gone… not unnoticed, but it isn’t something I always associate with everyday life or consciously recognized. They immediately latched onto the fact that the program, and plants in general, gave me purpose. And I guess it did.

The Resource Center called earlier this week to inform me that they would definitely like me to speak at their event. Well, there will be teachers and school administrators there, so they want me to try to emphasize not giving up on the students and being inclusive. I’ve been attempting to figure out what to put about that. How to get the point across.

Meanwhile, I’ve been putting together this PowerPoint presentation on the gardens of Cleveland. I knew I wanted Cleveland Botanical Garden; and then added the Cultural Gardens to it. I decided I wanted to put a focus on school gardens as well. So, I found the Benjamin Franklin Elementary & Old Brooklyn Garden. And… you guessed it! I got to add “my” program in. Of course.

Let me tell you a little about the William Foster Elementary Tract Garden Program. It started in the early 1970s as a plowed field and developed into forty 3’x8’ raised beds surrounded by a wooden fence with a pretty trellis over the gate. By the time I got to it, the program was for third and fourth graders and was run by a second grade teacher at William Foster. The former principal had started the program and she was his assistant. Each summer, thirty-eight students would get to participate. The other two beds belonged to Mrs. Baillis (née Horvath when I started) and Mr. Matthews (the principal) and were used for demonstrations for us students. We’d plant radishes, onions, leaf lettuce, beans, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, cucumbers, and zucchini. The students would each get a folder containing a planting chart that would be filled out as the veggies were planted, some worksheets, and pages used for harvest records. There was a Garden Fair Day where the Ohio Sate University Extension office would come out, ask us questions, and look at our gardens. We’d get certificates and 4-H pins. At the end of the season, Mrs. Baillis held the Garden Ceremony. She’d give us back our folders with a grand total of how much we saved growing our own garden instead of buying from the store, a certificate of participation, and she’d give a slideshow of pictures she had taken years prior as well as the current season.

Those Mondays and Thursdays were the best of my childhood. I was in the program followed by all three of my sisters. I’d end up with a Garden by default because there were always kids that didn’t stay with the program. Starting the summer going into my freshman year of high school, I was Mrs. Baillis’s assistant. I would go up with her a few weeks before the season started to make sure the beds were strung and get general setup done. Throughout the season, I’d do whatever needed to be done up there. From weeding and planting the front flower beds to helping the kiddos with some projects we did. And, Mr. Matthew’s garden ALWAYS fell to Mrs. Baillis and me in the summer. I’ll say that up front, without question.

Mrs. Baillis retired the year I graduated. So.. 2002. I hoped to take over the program, but another teacher took the position. I won’t go into how horrible, to me, that last few months I was there was to me. I felt horrible for not sticking with the program as I promised Mrs. Baillis and Mr. Matthews I would. Neither were upset; and hadn’t, as it turns out, been positive that I would stay. The program would only last a few short years after that. I… Moving on…

So, on to why I’m writing this whole thing. So, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to say about having something to be involved in along with teacher/administrator support while having an illness when in school.

First, the garden program itself. I smile every time I talk about it. It was.. is one of the best experiences I have ever had. Can I tell you something? I needed the start year and the final year for the program, so I called the Board of Education to get the information before calling Mrs. Baillis. NO ONE knew ANYTHING about the program. As in NOTHING. I was devastated. I was. I think I still am a bit. I always forget that not everyone saw the gardens the way I did and always will. The William Foster Garden Program led me to vocational school for Horticulture (my teacher even let me start the tomato and pepper plants there and we grew them in the greenhouse for the kiddos). It helped get me my internship at Cleveland Botanical Garden as a high schooler. That was unheard of. I developed a love of plants that continues.

Mrs. Baillis. She was beyond thrilled when I decided to attend CVCC for Horticulture… something that came out of her program. I was asked to be on the state competition team as a junior. You could see the pride on her face. When I wanted to lead the program upon her retirement- I had an argument prepared for why I think it would work. I didn’t need it. She was ecstatic. When I was accepted to Ohio State University- ATI as a Horticulture Science major I think she may have been prouder than my parents.

Mrs. Baillis NEVER… My junior year of high school I began getting panic attacks. She never said “I think you need to go home” or “Maybe you shouldn’t be here today.” Instead, she had be create a backdrop for the Tomato Toss game (played at Garden Fair Day). We’d sit on the seats under the trellis, in between kids getting there, ripping up sheets to use as tomato and pepper ties. Slowly I’d calm. She’d watch, but not hover. The simple act of her taking a vacation my sophomore or junior year (for the first time I can remember during a garden season) and feeling confident in me to manage, with Mr. Matthews, the program (for those two day) gave me confidence I don’t know I would have had in myself.

I don’t know that I would have survived the onset of my illness the way I did without my beloved program. I’ve even done an art journal project on it. I use my love of plants to maintain wellness whenever I can. I use the same techniques I learned there. My garden bed is laid out the same way we did it all those years ago.

Mental illness takes away a lot. One thing of which is self-esteem and confidence. I am lucky enough to have 9 years of memories to look back on when I am lacking those. And not just the memories, but someone that helped me, according to my mom and a few others, in becoming who I am today.

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