By Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley
Peter Lasman, 62, has watched the garden more than double in size since he started working here a decade ago.
Robin Silverman, 67, has just harvested the first strawberry of the season, and she’s happy to show it to you.
Rachael Arbelo, 24, has made friends working in the garden and loves it here.
And Terry Davis, 63, brings pineapple tops from the group home where she lives to plant in the garden. “We work very, very hard,” she said.
These are a few of the more than a dozen regulars who bring life to the Ability Garden associated with the Jewish Association for Residential Care in Boca Raton. This facility provides independent and assisted living as well as educational programs and services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The garden is the handiwork of Kimberli Swann, who started it in 2007.
“No matter what your abilities, you are welcome here,” said Swann, the association’s community garden coordinator and supported living coach.
When she began working at JARC, her job included spending time with resident clients doing meaningful activities. “But taking them bowling and to movies and restaurants wasn’t my thing,” she said. She also had clients in a day program that didn’t keep them busy.
Building on her passion for plants, she decided to create a garden as a way to give all her clients something meaningful to do that would teach them new skills and get them outdoors.
“There was real method to my madness of starting this project,” she said, smiling.
Today the garden encompasses over 800 square feet and soon will almost double in size. “Every year it gets bigger and bigger as I develop new relationships, find new volunteers and get donations to buy fencing to enclose more land,” she said.
She and her clients are proud of the newly installed winding brick pathway among the user-friendly raised beds. “Anyone who is not comfortable bending over can just reach in and garden,” she said, mentioning that the elevated boxes are also wheelchair accessible.
The garden also has new in-ground beds created with the help of volunteers from the Pride Recovery Center in Delray Beach. They’ve been coming here every other week for two years. Ranging in age from 20 to 40, they do the heavy lifting.
On the other weeks, older adults from the Polo Club in Boca Raton work one-on-one with clients, introducing newcomers to the planting of crops and working in the soil.
These crops include eggplants, broccoli, kale, bananas, tomatoes, onions, scallions and even luffas. It amazes just about everyone who sees them that these sponge-like objects come from a vine, not the sea.
When the garden has enough ripe vegetables, the harvest is given to those who work there and to an onsite café, where kale is a favorite to use in soups.
Today, Swann plans to let staff and clients sample some fresh tomatoes and basil harvested from the garden with fresh mozzarella she got from a cheesemaker who lives near her home.
She and a co-worker also have used the harvest to make eggplant Parmigiana. Banana bread is another culinary project the clients enjoy when a hand of bananas ripens.
And if someone is having a bad day, he or she might visit the garden to harvest a pocket full of fragrant lavender leaves, which are touted to have a calming effect.
Swann wants nothing more than to grow her garden so it can become a bigger focal point in her clients’ lives. She raises funds and works with local stores to get donations. This year she hopes to add a seating area and barbecue grill so the clients will have a place to gather for social and educational events.
“We change it out here every year. You never know what you are going to find,” said Swann.
You can reach Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley at email@example.com.
“If you are going to plant a garden, you need to have good soil. Soil is your foundation. Here in Florida, the soil tends to be rocky and sandy. So we prefer raised beds that you can fill with good soil, and they are so much more comfortable anyway.”
— JARC community garden coordinator Kimberli Swann
If You Go
Where: JARC Community Ability Garden, 21160 95th Ave. S., Boca Raton
What: A garden designed for and tended by the intellectually and developmentally disabled clients of the Jewish Association for Residential Care in Boca Raton.
When: The garden is open to JARC clients 9 a.m. to noon on Fridays from September through May and by appointment for all others.
What’s needed: Volunteers and donations, whether it’s money, seeds, tools, and so on.
For more information: Contact community garden coordinator Kimberli Swann at 558-2569 (office), 756-0144 (cell), or Garden@jarcfl.org