Four years ago, most of the students at the Life Skills Academy at Hewitt-Trussville High School could not have imagined "playing in the dirt" or planting would be one of the highlights of their school day. Now, three raised bed gardens later and years of participation in the PLANT PROJECT® program, most of these special high school students are Junior Master Gardeners. They also have an active 4-H® and Junior Master Gardener (JMG) club, and they spread their love of the outdoors with peers, parents and others whom they encounter. Hewitt-Trussville High School is the first school to successfully complete the FOCUS (Finding Our Conservation, Use and Sustainability) component of the PLANT PROJECT® program and take ownership of the component at their school. It had been a long and rewarding journey for both Hewitt-Trussville and Cawaco RC&D Council’s Horticultural Therapy Program.
The PLANT PROJECT® program is a unique approach to horticultural therapy. The program has several components, aimed at different age groups and ability levels, but all components have the same mandate: to use plants and planting activities, environmental education and a connection with nature to enable individuals to function to the fullest of their abilities, to become and remain contributing members of society, to assume stewardship of natural resources, and to feel self-worth, achievement and self-reliance to the best of the individual’s abilities. The program was developed a few years ago by Cawaco’s Horticultural Therapy Program Director Susan Grimes, who realized, while people in general were becoming disconnected with the natural world, the two segments of the population who were affected the greatest by this were children living with disabilities and older adults over 65 who reside in senior living facilities. She went on to develop the idea of using traditional horticultural therapy practices, nationally-recognized environmental education curricula like Junior Master Gardeners®, Project Learning Tree® and Growing Up Wild®, and one-on-one mentorship with older adults over the age of 65 to create a program that is the only one of its kind in the United States.
The PLANT PROJECT® program has two well-defined components: FOCUS is aimed at high school students with special needs and TWIGS™ (Touching, Wondering, Investigating, Growing and Sensing) was developed for middle-school level children with special needs. Four schools were enrolled in the program this year, but, since the Life Skills Academy at Hewitt-Trussville has taken ownership of their program, the Horticultural Therapy program plans on adding at least two new schools in the coming school year.
Luci Davis is the State Junior Master Gardener Coordinator. For more information on the program, phone (334) 703-7509.