Sweat beaded on the workers’ foreheads as they pruned leaves from banana trees, picked ripe tomatoes and added plant food to the flowers.
“Plant food is what makes them so beautiful,” Channing Wise said proudly, pointing to a zinnia with magenta petals.
For the past three months, Wise and Zack Terrelle have spent two hours a day, three days a week tending to the raised bed gardens at the ARC of Morgan County, a Decatur-based nonprofit organization focused on providing advocacy, programs and services for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Under the guidance of Morgan County Master Gardener Jim Braun, Wise and Terrelle planted peppers, cantaloupes, okra, watermelon, snake beans, tomatoes and pumpkins. They pulled weeds, watered the gardens and manned a table at the Morgan County-Decatur Farmers Market, where they gave away free sunflowers and zinnias.
“I was nervous at first at the farmers market because I didn’t know anybody down there, but Jim drew me and Zack into it. It was a lot of fun,” Wise said.
Growing those connections between the community and individuals with special needs spurred Abby Smith, director of the ARC of Morgan County, to propose the creation of the garden.
“I hope the community sees what Channing and Zack are doing and they understand that adults with developmental or intellectual disabilities are just like them. Everybody has the same wants. Everybody needs to know they are contributing in some way to society. People need to see that we are more alike than we are different,” Smith said.
Work on the garden dubbed “The Growing Together” project, started last year after the Alabama Council on Developmental Disabilities awarded the ARC of Morgan County a $15,500 grant to start the program. The grant required the ARC to contribute $7,500 to the project for a total of $23,000. The council can renew the grant for three years.
To take the garden from a dream to a reality, Smith reached out to the Morgan County master gardeners. Braun, who previously worked in group homes in Missouri, welcomed the opportunity to serve as project manager.
“Any time there is a gardening project in the community, we are all about getting involved and helping to educate the public and promote gardening,” Braun said. “Since I have a background working with handicapped people, this project hit close to home for me. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Laying out the garden rested with Braun, who created a handicapped-accessible design with taller than normal raised beds for individuals in wheelchairs. For the United Way’s Day of Caring, Decatur Utilities adopted the ARC of Morgan County and built the raised beds.
Wise and Terrelle, who the ARC of Morgan County hired to tend to the garden, started work in May.
“When I met Jim, I thought he was a great guy to teach me about gardening. He’s taught us how to take care of tomato plants better. We still need to work on our watermelons and pumpkins though. I just don’t believe they will survive,” Wise said, looking at the orange cooking pumpkins lying on the ground.
“I hope they survive,” Braun said. “The pumpkins are Zack’s favorite. He’s all excited about us making pumpkin pie.”
Along with teaching the men gardening skills, the project helps boost their confidence and provides them with employment.
“People need to know, I’m not doing the work and Jim is not doing the work, Channing and Zack are the ones out here doing the work,” Smith said. “They take pride in their job and save up their money. Channing is saving up money for a cellphone. Zack saves his money up and likes to order pizza. I want the community to see that these guys want to work and are learning valuable skills.”
To keep the garden operating year-round, the ARC of Morgan County installed a greenhouse. Plans for next year include expanding the garden, building more raised beds and hiring more workers. During peak season, Smith hopes to offer employment to eight individuals.
“We would also like to the get the children involved in our other programs involved in the garden. We would love to have them paint some flower pots, fill them with flowers and give them away at senior living places,” Smith said.
To get a firsthand look at the flowers grown by Wise and Terrelle, stop by the farmers market on Fridays from 9 until 11 a.m. All donations received from the free flowers will go back into the garden. Along with giving away flowers, the men will hand out information about the ARC of Morgan County.
“The goal is to get the name of the ARC out. Channing and Zack are out there handing out flowers and engaging with the public,” Smith said. “For some people, this is their first time meeting someone with special needs. For others, they have a child or grandchild with a disability and are learning about the ARC.”
Founded in 1975, the ARC of Morgan County provides summer school, after-school care, respite care, recreation programs and educational services for ages 3 to 21. The agency at 2234 Graham Ave. S.W., is open 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.