the counselor: transitional resources
There was no sign announcing its presence on this busy West Seattle Street, nothing to indicate that an urban farm was nearby. Jenny told me on the phone that it’s the smallest certified organic farm in the state of Washington. I checked my phone’s mapping system - it seemed easy enough to find I thought, but I drove past it. I turned around and drove past it again. I craned my neck, searching for driveways that I may have missed. My phone kept telling me I had arrived -- but I just couldn’t see it.
The farm is set in the center of a large residence community for those who live with chronic and severe mental illness; the staff takes pride in their ability to blend into the neighborhood, providing support and privacy for those seeking help. In addition to helping with housing, employment and counseling; the organization offers a number of wellness groups. What once was a small gardening group has now blossomed into a small production urban farm.
I eventually found some parking in a lot about a block away and set out on foot to find this farm and Jenny, the mental health counselor, farmer and the Garden Club coordinator that had invited me that evening. She found me on the sidewalk as I made my way down the street and welcomed me into the office. One wall was covered in certificates of the many folks that share the office of this 24-hour operation. I took a seat in the guest chair, so that she could give me some background on the clients and what to expect from the evening.
We headed to the greenhouse to pick up some tools and plant starts that had been donated by an area business, and made our way to the courtyard. Surrounded by the three story apartment complex, this tiered courtyard with several retaining walls was filled with weeds and gravel paths lined with pots filled with various indeterminate plants. The group that had joined us was small, the task to whip this farm into shape, large. And while many are hesitant to jump in once they arrive, the group has become a success. It is responsible for creating at least one part-time paying job for a resident and many have enjoyed learning to cook with the produce.
At the end of the evening and the residents had returned to their apartments, Jenny and I returned the tools to the greenhouse and headed back to her office to talk about the program and her own personal growth she has experienced through garden club. Below is a transcription from the audio I recorded.
Note: With respect for the residents’ privacy I chose not to show their faces in these images.
JENNY: So we were just talking about sort of our conflicts a tier in working with this population have severe mental health issues like schizophrenia, bipolar, but also have these other health concerns and so our one client mentioned today that, you know, type 2 diabetes with having that it’s just really hard. He gets really tired and there’s sort of all these other barriers to mobilizing this population because of the challenges that they have and so I try to kind of think about having a program like this. It needs to be flexible, where people can’t come all the time, and that’s okay, and they can just show up when they’re feeling well. We had another client today who came for 20 minutes and then told me, “I’m going to go back to my room,” [laughs] and that’s fine, he came out, he did what he could, he planted a few things and then he went back and I think that’s kind of the ebb and flow of our groups--especially in the summertime, we have--the sun is out, more people are kind of buzzing around. I have people coming in and out, not necessarily participating, sometimes participating. It’s more like a social--it’s a social gathering place, the garden and it gets people out of their homes and outside. Even the clients that don’t participate sometimes ask like, “Oh, can I just sit here and watch and just sit and observe,” and I think just having something really beautiful to look at is really therapeutic as well. So, yeah, I had a client last year who came to group almost every week, sat on the bench and watched us--never participated and this year he’s our waterer [laughs] and he has been coming to group every week and participating. It just really is kind of cool to see somebody who was maybe a lot more reserved at first, nervous about gardening, nervous about working, and now is getting paid to water for us. It’s kind of a cool success story.
AUDRA: So do the ones that come to group, do they get paid or is it a volunteer?
JENNY: It’s totally volunteer. Just our waterer gets paid and everyone else just comes to the group. And we have other groups here, we have like a music group, we have a walking group, an art group, and like a dinner group (people cook together), so there’s lots of stuff going on here. I think garden group is the best [laughs], the most attended, the most popular--no [laughs], we’ve just like had garden group going for so long. We’ve had the garden for like 20 years. I’ve been here for six years and before that there were some other really committed folks that were not just doing garden group but were also selling the produce to local restaurants. We’ve sort of scaled down a bit since then just because of resources but it’s been, still just really neat that it has been surviving this long.
AUDRA: And how was it funded?
JENNY: So the agency allocates a certain percentage of money towards the program every year and I think we had some initial grants or donations, like when the greenhouse was built and tools and all that stuff, so like once that was in place we really--our year-to-year budget doesn’t have to be so big because we have a lot of our supplies. It’s more just soil and seeds which, they cost money but they’re not too much, and then of course me, I’m a paid staff so, there’s that. I try to keep costs low and depend on donations like the burlap--we get a discount for that. The PCC plants were donated. We got a lot of seeds donated as well this year.
The community has been really good to us and I feel like maybe one challenge for me would be to try to do a year with all donations [laughs] because I think I could do it. It would just take a lot of asking and a lot of coordinating, like every garden shop, if they were to give like one bag of compost, or like one thing, we could do it.
JENNY: It would take a lot, so sometimes we just rely on the budget.
AUDRA: And so come harvest time do the clients, are they eager to get their hands on some of those vegetables?
JENNY: Yes. So our tomatoes are the most popular. They are the most requested and the most taken. People are eating stuff that they never have eaten before, like kale is a perfect example. I’ve had people tell me that kale is delicious and they’re eating it raw out of the garden which is like my dream come true because I think kale is delicious and I think it’s a plant that is just wonderful to grow and it’s so nutritious.
AUDRA: Brain food.
JENNY: It’s brain food and the fact that our clients, you know, like a lot of them are cooking with kale [laughs], like they’re not cooking the healthiest things and to give them that exposure or just that option to cook with something from the garden is really nice.
AUDRA: So all the residents here have their own kitchens in their apartments?
JENNY: Yeah. So all the clients in this building and next door and then the one, kind of the courtyard, all of those are apartment buildings. The house we’re sitting in right now is a more intensive group home so there’s I think 10 bedrooms in this house where people live together and there’s 24-hour staff in this house. This is a little bit more for people who are like just getting out of the hospital, like Western State, who need a lot of support and then the idea is that eventually they would transition out into an apartment, either next door or in the community, so we have a number of houses--group houses--in the community that are--people are roommates and living there together and they come to the agency for treatment and medication and stuff like that.
AUDRA: You mentioned that one year you had a bumper crop. What did you do with all your excess produce?
JENNY: So, that was a couple years ago. We had a lot of produce. We ended up donating it to the West Seattle Food Bank. In the last two years we’ve had a whole new building being built and that building has been taking a lot of our produce and so we haven’t had a lot of extra lately, I mean I think it would be ideal to have our clients fully benefit from our produce and of course extra be donated, but it’s nice because our clients are people that use the Food Bank and there are people who are on Social Security and Medicaid, so there not--
AUDRA: They tend to be sort of at risk and low income.
JENNY: Very, very low income. I hear them budgeting their food all the time. Like, “Okay, I know what you can do . . . you can soak beans and make them in the pot and you can get a whole week’s worth of food out of that.” I hear them kind of scheming. The people next door, they cook a lot for themselves because they have to. They have to cook. It’s really nice when we can supplement their budget with the garden.
AUDRA: So, how did you get into farming? You’re a Midwest girl? Raised in corn country?
JENNY: I hadn’t eaten a vegetable--I mean I had maybe a few, but I really didn’t start eating vegetables until I was about 22 years old. I grew up on home-cooked meals, but it was like pork and beef and mashed potatoes and like, really mid-western, like yeah, just buttery casseroles and things like that. I remember a few vegetable dishes that my mom would make but she never made us eat them, and so I just never ate vegetables and grew up like in, yeah, corn country, a suburb, but you know, surrounding--didn’t really see a lot of organic gardens. My dad grew some tomatoes on the side of the house and that was about it. I went to school in Ohio, too, so I really did not discover this passion until I moved to Seattle in 2008. I ended up--I did a volunteer year with Transitional Resources here as a case manager, so it was like a program similar to AmeriCorps and I worked here as a case manager just running groups and taking people to doctor’s appointments and during that year I started getting involved with the garden and I realized that I liked being out there a lot more than I liked being in the house [laughs], and so when that year ended I ended up transitioning out of TR full-time but then kept running the groups, so now I just run the group a couple hours a week and I do other work.
AUDRA: Right, so you have another full-time job?
JENNY: I do, yeah. So that’s why I’m here at 6:30 at night, but I’m only here once or twice a week and then I do all the planning and coordination, just like offsite, and then I have the waterers here. So when I come, it’s literally like, especially, I mean right now it’s like a little slow because they’re just getting things into the ground and there’s not a lot competing for attention yet, but like in a month or two, we come and we’re out here for like 2-1/2 hours because that’s the only time I’m here and we just have so much to do.
AUDRA: Tell me more about the farm itself. How much square footage do you think you’re working with?
JENNY: Definitely less than a quarter of an acre--probably like a quarter of an acre. It’s so small. I mean, we used to have that second space but we (with our man/woman power) could not maintain that so we turned that into kind of like a therapeutic walking/sitting garden and we do have some native plants and trees there, but the actual garden space is quite small. We are certified organic because we did have a program at one time where we were sending to restaurants and so we sought out that organic certification for that program and then ever since we just thought, well, why don’t we just hang onto it in case we ever want to return to that program or--and it also just helps us adhere to organic methods and I think we need that structure. I think, it’s just nice because all the clients know, like this is an organic garden and they get to learn about what it means to be an organic garden and, umm, yeah.
AUDRA: That’s cool. So you kind of actually stumbled into this just by volunteering . . .
JENNY: Yeah, I was--I just thought it would be cool to have my own garden and I thought it would be a fun thing to do and always really enjoyed working with my hands and stuff. There was a woman named Maria who ran the garden before me and so that year when she was working in the garden she was running it. She started mentoring me and I remember walking through the garden and she would be like, “this is that; this is that; that’s what that is,” and I was like, “oh, someday I want to be able to read a garden. I want to know what I’m looking at,” because I literally did not know what lettuce looked--I mean, I mean, what certain things looked like, like peas or kohlrabi--I’d never heard of kohlrabi before [laughs]. I mean it was really sad and now I am vegan and only eat vegetables and am really into the growing your own food movement. So Seattle has been really good for me. I cleared out some of my fast food from my younger years, so. Yeah.
AUDRA: What’s your favorite vegetable?
JENNY: Hmm [sighs] -- there are so many. I think . . .
AUDRA: It’s funny that this is the one that’s stumping you.
JENNY: It is. Umm. I think my favorite one to grow here is lacinato kale because it is easy to grow, it feeds a lot of people and it keeps growing, like you can just pluck the leaves off and like, you’ve just grown huge kale trees. For us, that’s the best. We can grow one plant and be harvesting from it all season long. That is going to feed more people and that’s just really great and I just love kale so much because it’s a brain food, it’s so nutritious and something that I discovered in my 20s and I eat it almost every day.
AUDRA: That’s a good thing.
JENNY: It’s tasty and I feel like, I feel really good after I eat it. And probably like one of the more fun things for me to grow, like more different things would be like our fruit trees. I love our figs and I love our Rainier cherry tree. That feels really like a special tree, like every time we have fruit it’s like GONE. I don’t actually buy a lot of fruit at the grocery store because I just like to wait until summer and then I just gorge on one thing while it’s here and then I don’t have it the rest of the year. So, it’s--I just, I think I’m--
AUDRA: I’m the same way.
JENNY: Yeah. I think I’m getting pickier. I only like it if it’s from the garden--[laughter]--not the grocery store [laughs].
AUDRA: So what does it mean to you to be able to provide this program for the clients?
JENNY: Umm, it is a very fulfilling program for me personally. I think like, 1) because I see clients being active and that makes me really happy because I think that with mental illness there is a lot of being stagnant, there is a lot of dwelling on your own illness. There is a lot of depression around that--anxiety around just being mentally ill. I think without activities you just sort of draw within and so when you can provide age-appropriate activities that are stimulating and interesting and where people are learning a new skill that will benefit them in the long run, like that is a really positive thing and yeah, and so the activity part of it and also just like the therapy part of it--I think there’s been a lot of studies that show just smelling soil is just good for you. I know for me, I come here after work when I’m all stressed out and I get here and I’m not even thinking about that anymore. I think that’s how you know when you really love something--it’s like when you’re doing it and you’re not thinking about anything else and you’re just very present and so I think it’s therapeutic for them of course and then also for me. I get a lot of therapy out of being here and I just feel like I am on a high when I go home. I love what I do here. Yeah.
AUDRA: That’s cool. I did read a study recently about handling dirt-- [END Jenny, Transitional Resources Part 1].
[BEGIN Jenny 2, Transitional Resources]
JENNY: So you were talking about soil?
AUDRA: Yeah, soil and its antidepressant qualities--
JENNY: So totally. And there is a whole, like there are whole graduate programs now that focus on horticultural therapy and someday I would love to do something like that because this is just kind of grass roots, I mean this isn’t a formal horticultural therapy program.
AUDRA: Right. You’re not doing any studies, you’re just--
JENNY: Right, we’re not doing these, we’re just saying, “hey, yeah, this is therapeutic and this feels great and so we’re gonna just do it” [laughs], but yeah, it would be nice to actually study it in a more academic setting and then I know there are programs in Portland and all over so it is therapeutic and I think it connects us to--or reconnects us to our ancestors--you know, our ancestors grew their own food, they foraged and harvested and for me personally growing up, I was very disconnected from that. I never knew where my food came from. I was sort of taught not really to ask questions about my food. I think we just sort of eat and we don’t think and so, like my vegetarianism sort of stemmed from not really being able to think about my meat. When I realized I couldn’t think about where my meat came from because it caused me so much dissidence, I just decided, okay, I’m not going to eat this anymore. And the same with vegetables, you know, I think you can be part of that process you’re connecting with your--our like innate desire to be connected to the earth, and how often do we get to do that anymore living in a city?
AUDRA: Yeah, it’s a privilege.
JENNY: So it’s very grounding and it is a privilege and I think, yeah, I also think a lot about, like my dad and his grandfather, they, in Ohio grew up very, very poor and my dad tells me stories about how they would go foraging because they had to and so they would come home with turtles for turtle soup or morels or, you know, all these different things and my grandfather just knew where to look for that stuff because it was passed down and somehow that was lost, that knowledge was lost, you know, my dad went to college and he was able to provide for our family and we never had to forage and it was almost like out of privilege we didn’t have to grow our own food, we didn’t have to go looking for turtles for turtle soup [laughs]. Umm, but actually, that’s stuff that I want to do, I mean not turtle soup but growing my own food and foraging, like I am rediscovering that that is in my blood and that I want to do that stuff.
AUDRA: To revive that tradition.
JENNY: Yeah, but I don’t really know, like I’m getting really into mycology and mushrooms and, like, “I don’t know *_______ that stuff,” [laughs] so it’s like about relearning and like teaching ourselves again what was lost, and there is just a lot of knowledge that our ancestors had that we don’t have any more and I think that’s really sad and so like anything I can do to teach people again how to do this, how to grow your own food, like that, that’s kind of my mission, so.
AUDRA: That’s your mission. And how do you know you’re successful?
JENNY: When I don’t have to force kale on people. When they ask for it [laughs]--when I don’t have to stuff it in their pockets as they’re like running away. When they tell me how they’re cooking things. They’ll come to group and say, “oh, I cooked this last week,” or “I made this or that,” or “oh, have you tried this?” and they’ll exchange recipes and stuff. I think that’s really cool. So, yeah, if they’re using it, that’s when I know it’s been a success, it’s like it’s not just rotting in their fridge which I know sometimes happens, too.
AUDRA: It happens to the best of us.
JENNY: Yes. Exactly.
AUDRA: Especially come zucchini time.
JENNY: I know, I know. There’s only so many ways to eat--yeah [laughter].
[END OF AUDIO]
Click here for Jenny's personal essay, "A Passion Revealed"
VIDEO with Jenny's audio