Growing And Nurturing Change: Reaching Diverse Communities Through Gardening

By Deardra Shuler

Photos: Deardra Shuler

The beauty of spring and summer is reflected in the gardens that come into bloom. Gardner Jo-Ann Hawker (above left) and Garden Designer Susan DiCarlo (above right) first met while attending a holistic health retreat. Ms Hawker is from the corporate world and Ms DiCarlo is an educator. However they shared an interest in gardening and natural health. Growing up in the South as a child, Hawker watched her parents and neighbors growing gardens. It was a major food source for many of the families. As an adult, she worked in the corporate world doing compliance work. DeCarlo grew up in the Bronx but experienced the same gardening techniques from her parents and neighbors.

“My parents always had a garden in Laurelton, Queens. The garden was amazing. I read a book that made me realize how important a garden and gardening was in the south. There is science that says gardening is healing. I see gardens as horticulture therapy. It helps in measurable and immeasurably aids in healing. I saw a movie entitled ‘Greenfingers’ that illustrated how it aids prisoners to change their perspective and reclaim their esteem and future outlook” stated Hawker.

“I loved working in the corporate world but I retired in 2019. After retirement, I became involved with Title One Public Schools where I noticed there was a poor and toxic environment that affected teachers and students alike. I wanted to know what could be done to change the environment,” said Hawker.

Jo-Ann had kept in touch with Susan who had a background in education and also in gardening. They decided something needed to be done to change the toxic bureaucractic situation iso came up with the idea to teach students entrepreneurial skills through gardening. Aside from teaching, Susan had a knack for designing gardens and Jo-Ann knowledge of the corporate world, so the women decided to combine their skills and aid students to recognize discipline, cooperation, collaboration, decision making, socialization, management, sales, responsibility and on-going care and maintenance as it applied to plants and business.

In this pursuit, Jo-Ann Hawker facilitated a financial literacy class as well as a garden club so students could can learn the monetary side of business as well as learn gardening. Both women would bring in flowers and the students volunteered to care for them.

“I’ve experimented with flowers, nature, making tinctures, etc” offered Jo-Ann.

Both Jo-Ann and Susan taught the students how seeds are planted and germinated, the use of tools, technology and manual labor.. They work with some under-served students that rarely see grass outside of city parks and urban gardens.

“The teachers were just as effective and enthused as the students. They would come out on their break and recharge,” said DiCarlo. “The garden brought everyone together, the entire building and the community was so thankful for the garden. The kids were happy to plant all year. We had a greenhouse as well. We did a lot of work in the classroom. Students learned about the roots and dissecting plants: the stem, the roots, the system, the flowering. Engagement is the name of the game. Hands on activity stimulated them.”

“Tittle One kids may see grass in parks but hardly ever see a real live farm. The women started the school kids with wheat grass so the kids could see the plants grow quickly. There is something to say for education. Something to say for the care of a plant and see it manifest. Its a wonderful opportunity to establish confidence when you’re actively involved in the raising of the plant. This establishes an interest in learning all aspects of harvesting as well as learning entrepreneurial skills. And perhaps establish future careers,” said Susan and Jo-Ann.

“I don’t have any formal training in garden design but I thought about the training I do have. I was a great creator of original curriculum wherein you have to see the big picture. We are branching out into another under-served population which is veterans with dementia. We reached out to the Recreation Director of the NYS Veterans Home in St Albans, Queens. But it takes time to get through the red tape, There are so many applications one can do via gardening and we hope to reach out to several facilities and diverse communities” stated Susan.

Yes, The beauty of spring and summer is reflected in the gardens that come into bloom but also in the minds and hearts of those who harvest them.

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