It was getting harder and harder for Lillian to go back to her old house in Cumberland County, Maine, to continue gardening. She had moved into an assisted living community but refused to sell her house because of the gardens. Although she was in her 80s, she had aids drive her to her house so she could tend the gardens. The renters weren't interested in gardening, but the gardens meant everything to Lillian. She had always gardened organically and she still donated much of the extra produce to the local food shelf. But she was getting older and needed help.
That's when Kathy Rogers stepped in. Kathy and her 12-year-old daughter, Allison, became Lillian's garden angels -- able-bodied people who volunteer time to help less able people garden. Two years ago they started coming once a week to help Lillian plant, weed, harvest, and tend the garden. But angels offer much more than just gardening help. Kathy and Allison provide social contact for Lillian and a way for her to hold onto something very precious to her. "It's also a way for Allison to have a surrogate great-grandma and for me to reach out and make a difference in someone's life," says Kathy.
The idea of creating garden angels was started by Jim Calls in Alabama in 1999. Jim started matching up community gardeners in the Huntsville, Alabama, area. The idea caught hold. Dick Brzozowski, the University of Maine Cumberland County Extension Agent, attended a Master Gardener Conference and heard Jim speak about his program. Dick liked the idea so much he wrote a grant to start a similar program in his county. The program grew slowly until Kathy took it under her wing and became its coordinator.
In her county most gardeners have space to garden in their yards, but some don't have the physical ability to do all the work anymore. The Garden Angel Program matches volunteers with some gardening experience with these gardeners. Although it was started through the University of Maine Master Gardener program, being an expert gardener isn't a criteria. "Most of the older recipients have plenty of gardening experience and knowledge, they just need some help," says Kathy.
Kathy has had little trouble finding recipients or volunteers. "In 2003 we paired up 38 garden angels with 50 gardeners," says Kathy. They advertise in local papers and put up posters around town. "We try to target low income or disabled gardeners needing help and encourage them to grow some vegetables to supplement their diets," she says. They try to match recipients with volunteers in the same geographic area, and ask the angels to visit one day a week. "Some recipients just need help with the heavy work in spring and fall, while others are literally faces in a window and need hand-holding to get out in the garden," says Kathy. They've found the biggest benefit is not the amount of gardening help, but the social interaction. "We see a big change in the amount of social contact and in the connection the recipients feel to the community," she says.
Pilot funding to start the program has run out, but Kathy continues to coordinate the Maine Garden Angel Program as a volunteer. "I love it so much and want to see the program continue," she says.
Kathy would be happy to talk with anyone interested in setting up a Garden Angel program in their community. Her phone number is 207-883-3391.