Diggin' It!

By Charlie Nardozzi

While it's clear that gardening benefits young people in many ways, it's particularly enriching for youth with physical and mental challenges. A garden can connect them to the natural world in a hands-on, experiential way. Thanks to accessible gardening techniques, children in wheelchairs or with other physical challenges can experience soil, plants, and insects firsthand. Plus, they learn about growing and eating healthy food, and benefit from physical exercise.

Each summer, Camp ASCCA (Alabama's Special Camp for Children and Adults) in Jackson's Gap welcomes more than 5,000 children and young adults (ages 6 to 21) with disabilities such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, epilepsy, sickle cell anemia, hemophilia, spinal cord injures, and head injuries. For 25 years the camp had a Demonstration Farm, home to horses, cows, pigs, donkeys, chickens, and goats, and the campers enjoyed feeding and grooming the animals. But a farm wasn't a farm without a garden. So two years ago the camp built an accessible garden, which is now one of the the most popular programs.

Camp ASCCA is Alabama's Easter Seals camp, with a mission to help children and adults with disabilities achieve equality, dignity, and maximum independence. The garden program has become innstrumental in helping to meet these goals, and last year the camp won a Mantis tiller through NGA's Mantis Awards program.

The garden consists of six large wheelchair-accessible raised beds surrounded by plots where the staff and campers grow field crops such as sweet corn, okra, watermelon, squash, and sunflowers. The garden also has a wheelchair-accessible shed with a shady porch where kids can rest during the heat of the day. Each week a different

group of campers works in the garden. Kitchen staff use produce harvested by campers to prepare lunch. Campers feed resulting vegetable scraps to the farm animals and gain a hands-on appreciation for how plants support animal and human life. "I could tell the gardening program was becoming more popular when the number of staff and campers in the garden increased as the summer went on," says Camp Director Matt Rickman.

Danielle Morris, program director of the farm and garden, was amazed at how much the kids learned in only one or two sessions in the garden. "Many didn't know what okra looked like, how to pick a tomato, or how to shuck corn," she says Carrie, a 10-year-old camper, loved shucking corn so much she won our shucking contest. We couldn't get her to stop. Local Master Gardener volunteers help out in the garden, working along-side the campers. Some bring skills other than gardening to share with the kids. "Volunteer Matt Campbell plays the guitar," explains Rickman. "Often, on hot summer afternoons, he'll be on the porch playing and singing with the kids, while they eat watermelon they've just harvested."

The garden helps the children in myriad ways. "Many of these kids have never gardened before and don't have room to garden at home," notes Rickman. "This is one of the only opportunities for them to get their hands in the soil. Also, many of them spend hours in front of a television or playing video games. The garden helps them develop healthy habits, such as physical exercise, an appreciation for nature, and a taste for planting and eating wholesome foods."

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