Nonprofit combines landscape training and community service

Anyone working in the landscaping business knows the sense of pride and satisfaction that comes after a hard day’s work, looking out over a space that’s been transformed from barren to beautiful. That’s a feeling that Lynn White wanted to share with some people desperately in need of something to be proud of. She also wanted to help revive the landscapes of older, disabled residents and local community groups. By founding I’m Growing Stronger, a nonprofit program that combines landscape mentoring and service, White discovered an ingenious way to accomplish all of these goals.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF I’M GROWING STRONGER.
The women who are trained in landscaping may leave Willimantic, but they leave behind a positive and beautiful contribution to the community.
 
I’m Growing Stronger is a nonprofit organization in Willimantic, Conn., that provides free vocational landscape training to “women in transition.”

I’m Growing Stronger (www.imgrowingstronger.org) was started five years ago in Willimantic, Conn. At that time, White, who holds a degree in environmental horticulture/landscape design from the University of Connecticut, was looking for a way to get back into the landscape profession full-time after working at it part-time while she raised four children. “When they were all in school full-time, I wanted to do something in landscaping,” she recalls. “I remember at the time thinking back to an instance where I had helped a woman who had dislocated her shoulder by doing some work in her gardens, and another woman who had back trouble who I had also helped. It was so satisfying, and I thought that I would really love to help people with disabilities by working on their landscaping.”

Through other volunteer work in Willimantic, White and her husband became familiar with various groups involved with “the recovery community.” “These are folks who have had substance abuse issues, some of whom have been incarcerated and have gotten out of prison. They need a fresh start,” she explains. “I liked working in landscaping, and I enjoyed working with those in the recovery community. I couldn’t find a job in the job market that would let me combine these two areas, so I got a little courageous and formed a nonprofit to do it.”

White says the logistics of starting a nonprofit, everything from creating a Web site to writing grant proposals for funding, were sometimes daunting, but she received a tremendous amount of support from local foundations, community organizations, businesses and individuals. “My goal was to provide vocational training in landscaping, as well as life skills training for what I call ‘women in transition.’” It was a mission that those in the local community had an easy time getting behind, and over the past five years, the goals White set for I’m Growing Stronger have been met many times over.

The women who sign up to take part in the free landscape vocational training that I’m Growing Stronger offers typically are referred by various local recovery organizations, sober houses and halfway houses. White leaves fliers and talks to those running these facilities to let them know the program is available for those willing to learn something new and get their hands dirty.

I’m Growing Stronger began by providing free landscape services to older and disabled residents in town, many of whom have extensive gardening knowledge, but can no longer physically do the work.

“Some women who come just want to learn gardening as a hobby to use their time productively,” says White. Others see landscaping as a possible career path and need the training to get their foot in the door. “I’ve had several businesses in town in the horticultural field—one landscaping firm, one nursery and one wholesale nursery—that have said they will take applications from women who had completed the program, even though they didn’t have squeaky clean backgrounds,” she explains. “Employment is hard enough to come by, especially if you have a background that people don’t trust.”

In fact, White has placed three women in full-time positions with these firms. Of the three, one was terminated for performance reasons, but the other two worked successfully. One used the money earned to help return to college to complete her degree, and the other made enough on the job to rent an apartment and reunite with her estranged family.

White says that many of the women aren’t from Willimantic, and are in town to get back on their feet. Once they’ve completed the landscaping program and move on, it’s difficult to track their progress. What’s easier to see is the lasting contribution the women have made in Willimantic.

“We’ve been able to help so many people with their landscaping,” says White. “In a given year, we’re able to take on as many as 12 or 14 different projects.” Most projects are completed in the spring and fall, during favorable planting weather. In the beginning, she worked mainly with private individuals at their homes, but more recently she’s focused on working in public gardens in Willimantic, as well as other nonprofits in town. The work is all done for free. “The landscape training has to take place somewhere, so I figured why not choose the people and places most in need of the work,” she explains.

The program involves 20 hours of training, and White prefers to work with just one or two women at a time. “We cover the basic horticulture principles: plant identification, plant propagation, plant maintenance. Some of the women don’t know the names of tools, or which tools to use for a given task,” says White. “We deal mainly with annuals, perennials and shrubs, and we use all hand tools. It would be a safety issue to use gasoline-powered equipment when the women don’t know how to use it.”

The time spent with the women during the landscape training also gives White a chance to encourage them to stay on the right track, and she says working with just one or two women provides the best chance to get to know them and have an impact on their lives. The projects are often completed in a single day, allowing the women to step back and see the progress they’ve made. “They look at the new garden and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know I could do that,’” says White.

Those who complete the program receive a certificate. “We have a graduation ceremony, and new gardening gloves and a landscaping book,” says White. “We make as big a deal of it as we can to reinforce that they’ve really done something positive.”

The women in the program often have an opportunity to meet the disabled residents and local groups that they’ve helped through their gardening work. “That’s a big part of it. Some of the older homeowners have a vast amount of experience, not only with gardening, but with life,” says White. “It can be really enriching for the women to interact with them. I explain that we’re doing something for other people, and that satisfies something deep inside. They learn the joy of giving, and the joy of creating a beautiful garden where there once was a mess.”

More recently, I’m Growing Stronger has focused on beautifying the landscapes of public gardens and other nonprofits in town.

It’s a powerful message for those in the program. “Some have been in addiction for many years; others have recently been incarcerated, where all they saw was the gray concrete walls of prison. So, to come out and garden is a big change,” says White. For some, it’s a life-changing experience that they want to build on. “We just had one graduate who has expressed a desire to complete the Master Gardener program, and the local Garden Club of Windham has said that they would sponsor her,” she adds.

The beautification work done throughout Willimantic has attracted quite a bit of attention. “People have noticed us doing things to help beautify the town,” says White. She has received a number of local awards, including the humorously named annual “Romantic Willimantic Cupid of the Year,” given to someone who has made a positive impact on the community. The results have helped ensure continued financial support for the program. “I take before-and-after photos and put them together with a brief description of every project we do. Grant givers usually don’t get that much detail. This gives them the satisfaction of seeing the photos of the work we’ve done and the faces of the women we’ve worked with,” she says.

White also hopes that others might look at I’m Growing Stronger and use it as a model in their community. “I hope others might use it in other parts of the country. It’s not that difficult to do, and you can really see a positive impact on people’s lives.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.