Planting a seed

Garden center’s horticulture therapy program thrives thanks in part to decades of behind-the-scenes help from Australian Kiwanians.

Story by Kasey Jackson
Photos by Christopher Hassfurther

A young man of 21 walks quickly along a trail headed toward a row of multiple raised garden beds. Dressed in a bright, orange pullover fleece, he’s part of this beautiful place. He blends into the colorful landscape here. He’s excited—almost running. He wants to show off his garden.

“I like gardening, talking to my friends and planting stuff when I come here,” he says, explaining each plant in his garden. “There are vegetables growing, one herb—which is rosemary. It smells good. There are peas and strawberries too.”

Pointing to a somewhat tall green sprout, he explains, “Those flowers there, they turn into the peas. And there are a few weeds. But not many.”

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When visiting Kevin Heinze GROW (Gardening for Recreation, Occupation and Well-being), a facility for children and young adults with disabilities in Manningham—about a 30-minute drive from Melbourne in Australia—it’s as if you’ve entered the pages of a Dr. Seuss story. Or “Alice in Wonderland.” Things are a bit askew here, yet perfectly right. Broken teapots. Crooked signs. A couch that grows potatoes. (Yes. A real couch potato.)

This magical place started the way many things do: as a big idea. The now-deceased Australian gardening guru Kevin Heinze approached members of the Kiwanis Club of Doncaster-Templestowe (now the Kiwanis Club of Manningham) to request help realizing that idea.

“Kevin came to us as a guest speaker in 1976,” says Kiwanian Alan Wren. “He threw out the idea and the challenge. He told us about a garden he’d seen, and he said we were desperately lacking a similar place here. He said we could build something like that, but it would be strictly for the children and disadvantaged young adults. And he said: ‘Is your club able to rise to the challenge?’

“That sort of set us back on our heels a little bit. But we agreed that that’s something we’d like to get involved with. And within four years, we were up and running.”

Kiwanis members have been on the ground at the garden center ever since those first days. Engineers and builders and painters. Planners. Doers. Kiwanians.

“I’m on the Tuesday Team,” says Kiwanian Ray Harman. “We come in and do whatever maintenance is required—might be broken pipes, might be tools that need to be fixed. We spray around the weeds in the gardens and repair the raised garden beds.”

Those rows and rows of raised garden beds all were made by hand by Kiwanis members. When the garden center grew to have a full-time staff, Kiwanis built a new office where staff members could conduct business in a quiet environment. All along, it’s been a Kiwanis project.

Today, the garden center is a place where both volunteers and visitors come to not only learn about gardening, but also how to grow as people. Staff members work alongside volunteers when interacting with visitors—all children or young adults from special schools, disability support services, rehabilitation services and mental health and aged-care facilities.

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“I’m blunt with the teachers who send volunteer students,” says Amanda Marshall, manager at Kevin Heinze GROW. “ This isn’t a place you come to do good works. You’re coming here to learn about difference and hopefully to suspend your assumptions about people with differences, particularly in that adolescent age group where everything is about pigeonholing people and making assumptions about people.

“What I say to volunteers when they come in is, ‘Everybody has challenges in their life. What you notice here is that some of them are obvious. If someone has cerebral palsy, that’s an obvious challenge. I don’t know when I’m looking at you that you have severe mental health issues. Or you’ve lost both your parents. So, I don’t know what your challenges are, but everyone has challenges.’

“I’m absolutely adamant with teachers and schools. Don’t send your student (volunteers) here to feel sorry for our guys. You’re lucky to come here, because we’re gonna show you something about yourself, and we’re gonna help you grow up.”

Bruce Entwisle is a Kiwanis representative on the management committee at Kevin Heinze GROW. He’s been coming to the garden center for about 30 years. He helped build those raised garden beds. He’s been at the table for many decisions. (He probably even built most of those tables.) He’s seen this place change—and grow—from an almost-empty field to more than an acre of colorful plants and buildings surrounded by smiling faces.

“You still get the big buzz when you come down here,” he says. “You see the participants, and there’s been a lot of growth in those participants. One we were very proud of—he grew to a stage where he could talk to us, and we even had him running rehabilitation programs for people who had had strokes. He had a shed out back where he’d get up there and work with succulents. He wouldn’t say boo to a grasshopper when he first came here—but he’d certainly say boo to a grasshopper now.”

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Exploring the grounds, both inside and out, you get a feel right away that it’s playful and fun. Colorful bunting drapes along walls and flags flap in the wind. Mirrors in the garden reflect the blue skies above. A pair of old work boots sit near a door as if in anticipation of someone coming back to wear them. Alas, these boots now sprout tiny flowers, proof that anything and everything is game for growing around here.

Kiwanian Tony Kershaw served as president of the management committee for 23 years, just recently stepping down from that role. He’s walking the trails, pointing out this and that. Over there: Colorful panels in a wall make the sky look pink or orange. And here: a water feature that is  “soothing to the visitors. They’ll stand here forever and just watch and listen.” He smiles a lot while showing off just a small example of his work as a Kiwanian.

“I’m very proud of this,”  he says. “You just can’t explain it. It’s a happy time to come here every week.”

The stories and history of this place—there isn’t time to share it all. But Kiwanians and staff certainly remember the past and plan for the future. Together.

“Kiwanis is very much the skeleton and like the bones of the whole place,” says Marshall. “I can’t imagine not having a Kiwanis presence. It’d kinda be like you lost a limb, I think, if we didn’t have them around all the time, telling stories and sharing cups of tea. It just wouldn’t be the same.”

This story originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Kiwanis Magazine.

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