Interview with Sonia Lawson on the Possibility Garden
On Wednesday July 10, 2013, the 2012-2013 MDCCC AmeriCorps VISTA at Towson University for Cherry Hill Projects interviewed Dr. Sonia Lawson, an Occupational Therapy professor at Towson University. Dr. Lawson and other Occupational Therapy students were instrumental in the development of the Possibility Garden located in the Cherry Hill Urban Garden. The Sub grant was awarded in the spring of 2012. Her interview can be found below.
Interviewer: What is the Possibility Garden?
Dr. Lawson: We named it that because we thought it would make it possible for people who have physical challenges to be able to participate in gardening. We were trying to come up with a cool name for it and we thought, well, this would be good. It is kind of a hopeful word and it could be hopeful for people with disabilities and also for the things that could grow in the garden. That’s how we came up with the name. We made it be an adaptive garden so the beds are raised really high, not like your traditional raised beds, for people who might have back issues who can’t get on their hands and knees to do gardening. We also put a rubber mat surface down for people who might have a hard time maneuvering on grass. It’s not perfectly level, but it makes it easier to move around rather than trying to walk on the ground.
Interviewer: Where did the idea of a Possibility Garden stem from?
Dr. Lawson: Towson University has had a relationship with Cherry Hill through the schools in the neighborhood. We had several meetings with the College of Health Professions to see if there was anything we could do from our perspective in Cherry Hill. Then, Ms. Juanita was at a couple of the meetings and she mentioned wanting to get a community garden started. I’ve always enjoyed gardening, so when she mentioned that I thought it would be kind of cool to do a project around gardening. Then I kept in contact with her and Nadine Braunstein at Towson, who was really into gardening as well. We were meeting with people in the community about the Cherry Hill Urban Garden when this grant opportunity came from the USDA. So we thought, let’s apply for this! In writing up that grant, the group had to come up with ideas for establishing mini grants to start a number of garden projects in the community that would not only increase access to health foods but also be a job training opportunity for youth. Then it was like okay well what kind of mini grants can we do? After talking to Ms. Juanita, and getting her vision of the garden serving multiple purposes, I thought that we could have an adaptive piece to it so that members in the community who do have physical challenges could participate. I ran it by Ms. Juanita and she thought it would be great and a manageable thing to do with a chunk of money from the grant.
Interviewer: So did you and Ms. Juanita write the grant for the Cherry Hill Urban Garden? Or did you have to do a separate grant for the People’s Garden?
Dr. Lawson: I did a separate grant for the people’s garden. And part of the people’s grant was that it wasn’t just an outside agency you had to have a community partner and so Juanita was the community partner. So I kind of had the idea and talked to her about it and she’s like yea you know I will partner with you! So trying to get people in the community involved in the grant funding too, not just people from the outside coming in to do the mini grants.
Interviewer: So you got the grant, and you and Ms. Juanita started the Possibility Garden. Were there certain community members, students or organizations at Towson, that were influential in helping you getting it started?
Dr.Lawson: Part of the grant that I wrote in was to incorporate occupational therapy students at Towson. Initially, I thought that we would get a small group of students from the Student Occupational Association to not only help build the up the Possibility Garden, but the Cherry Hill Urban Garden as well. So you know my original Idea did not pan out but I had talked about it enough to where I had a several students who were interested on their own to help me out so they worked on it for a little bit . Then this same group of students who were interested, were taking a class where they could actually use it as part of their class assignment, which gave them dedicated time. They knew not only were they creating this project for the community, but they got credit for the class. So part of it was to get the students involved, but also to do some training in ergonomics for gardening. With the grant we also bought adaptive gardening utensils, so not only did we build it, we bought the utensils. So part of it was to train in proper gardening body mechanics (ergonomics) and we were actually looking to go to Senior Manor to train them over there since they are right across the street. We were actually able to do that and I was really happy. We wanted to train them for the possibility garden, but they ended up with their own garden. We still did the training with them with a little lesson and we had people come out to their garden and use some of the utensils that we had so they could see how they worked. There was a core group of 4 students, but outside of that there were 3-4 students who came whenever they could. Whenever we needed some heavy hands we just kind of asked who wants to come to the garden and help out and we had people come down and do that.
Interviewer: How do you feel about the progress made in the Possibility Garden?
Dr. Lawson: Well I’m excited that we got it done and we actually used the money for a little bit extra. We actually were able to put the door and the fence so it goes right into the garden, so again, makes it easier access for people because there is a curb cut already at the sidewalk right there so people in wheelchairs can come in through there and get right into the garden. We didn’t realize we were going to have money for that, but we ended up having some extra money to be able to do that. So I am happy that there are things growing in the beds and we got the mats down. The only thing I am a little dissatisfied with is that the grass underneath is coming up through the holes in the mat. You know we had to kill the grass, but by the time we could come back and actually start building the beds it started growing back. So we didn’t do such a good job with the growing the grass. I’m kind of thinking we need to spray vinegar on a regular basis so it will kill the grass. But, I was talking to Ms.Juanita the other day and no one is really coming now that we built it. When we were building it, all these people in wheelchairs and scooters and people going by were saying oh wow what are doing? You know we were telling them to come back when it’s all done and no one’s been back. So we saw people that could really use it but they haven’t really been back. You know there still is some money in the grant and I was recently talking to Juanita about seeing if we could write for another one and making a project now about actually working in it. So maybe there are some special needs groups or middle school kids that we can round up to work in there.
Interviewer: In the next five years, where do you see the Possibility Garden?
Dr.Lawson: I would like to see more of the seniors from Senior Manor come over and like I said some of the people with special needs. Even people without special needs like school groups coming in there and learning about gardening or maybe having it being adopted by a school in the community that can say this is going to be our garden and we are going to go in and help take care of it. I still believe in the possibility of the Possibility Garden. We’ve built and they will come.