It’s eight-thirty a.m. on a Monday in East Rock’s Edgerton Park and Steffen Moore is sweeping the greenhouse floor. Moore, who is 35, has already held more than seven jobs—at the Mary Wade Home, a New Haven-based home care agency, and various truck stops—but these stints were always short-lived. More often than not, he was among the 64.6 percent of workers with a disability who were unemployed in Connecticut. That is, until his caseworker at the Connecticut Department of Developmental Services (DDS)—which serves individuals with intellectual disabilities and their families—referred him to G.R.O.W.E.R.S., Inc.
G.R.O.W.E.R.S. stands for “Growing Real Opportunities With Education, Relationships and Stability.” It’s a nonprofit designed to help New Haven adults with physical and developmental disabilities become self-sufficient through horticultural experience, occupational training, and education. The program runs every weekday from nine a.m. to two p.m. in the greenhouses and community gardens of Edgerton Park. G.R.O.W.E.R.S. employees pick up participants from their homes and assign them a flexible set of chores, such as cleaning up greenhouse shelves, raising plants for sale in the greenhouse, and maintaining the park. Some participants are also trained for landscaping and contracted to take care of private gardens.
“I’ve seen this program do amazing things for a lot of people,” said Scott Hickman, who founded G.R.O.W.E.R.S. in 2012. “I grew up in a greenhouse, went to school for it, but still can’t put my fingers around how the greenery can be so transformative.” G.R.O.W.E.R.S is one of the three adult day programs for people with disabilities in New Haven, and the only one that provides services for those under the age of sixty.
But Connecticut’s budget crisis has severely curtailed G.R.O.W.E.R.S.’s work. A similar program in the same greenhouse, called Greenbrier, shut down in 2011, after Connecticut’s $3.4 billion deficit forced it to cut funding to day programs. Hickman, who served as Greenbrier’s horticulture supervisor, rebuilt the program into G.R.O.W.E.R.S. He conceived of a more creative and specialized structure: the “Three Paths.” Clients would be placed into three groups based on their developmental and physical ability. Path One was designed for clients who wanted to enter the job market. The tasks they were assigned—landscaping a private garden, for example—would improve their job and social skills. Path Two was for individuals who needed more supervision than Path One clients, combining tailored instruction and paid work. Path Three, meanwhile, would serve clients that required even more intensive support, focusing on horticultural therapy to increase overall well-being.
Connecticut’s budget crisis, however, also clobbered G.R.O.W.E.R.S. The organization, which is funded by DDS and rents its space from the Edgerton Park Conservancy, is only able to employ three full-time staff and depends mostly upon volunteers. It also had to effectively scrap the “Three Paths” program after Hickman realized the difficulty of housing more than one type of work in the location. It now accommodates mostly Path Two clients within its facility.
But Hickman finds other ways to help his clients. Starting at one p.m. every day, Hickman and Raina Workman, the G.R.O.W.E.R.S. job coach, teach a combination of reading and life skill classes, designed so that their clients can be competitively employed and self-sufficient. The lessons range from plant identification and propagation to discussions of situational problem solving.
One Wednesday in September, Hickman conducted a discussion regarding bullying, with a focus on self-empowerment. “We sat and listened to the stories they had to deal with,” he said. “Even the quieter ones start speaking out after they see the others sharing.”
Edgerton Park, where the program is based, sits at the base of East Rock and is a popular spot in the New Haven community. During “Sunday in the Park,” a small fair that the Edgerton Park Conservancy hosts each year, intricately beaded straw dolls and rows of mini pumpkins line the outer frames of the greenhouse. The participants of G.R.O.W.E.R.S. set up pumpkin painting stations, fresh cider, and bunches of chrysanthemums to welcome the New Haven public and fundraise for the park. They maintain the poise of graceful hosts.
Hickman remains ardent about the program’s potential for building community among vulnerable populations even amidst funding difficulties. He wishes to expand the program, perhaps through a summer camp for disabled children in the greenhouse, with the participants acting as counselors. With a larger budget, he’d also love to start programs in retirement home complexes or transform abandoned greenhouses into storefronts.
For now, on most days throughout the fall, Workman leads a reading group on Stephenie Meyer’s young adult series Twilight, the most common gift to the local donation boxes. Sitting next to several pots of yellow chrysanthemums, the participants take turns reading, five lines at a time. They pause to discuss vocabulary like “prolong” and “unconditional.”
“If you’re religious, God’s love is unconditional,” Workman clarifies for the group. “Your human rights are unconditional.”