Making a Living by What We Give – My Volunteer Job is My Lifeline

We make a living by what we do, but we make a life by what we give. — Winston Churchill

My mother would be happy because her youngest child is finally eating greens, thanks to a volunteer job. Salad? Me? No, thanks. Although I have been a life-long gardener, the fruits of my labor have been limited to tomatoes, pumpkins and flowers. I devoured the tomatoes, fresh from the vine, not bothering to rinse or salt them, but even the pumpkins were for decorative purposes only. I did not appreciate the value of good nutrition and declared my “hatred” for the taste of all things green.

While working full-time at a demoralizing dead-end job, I came home and planted – daffodil bulbs, lilac bushes, distressed plants on clearance at nurseries, tomatoes, peach pits, ditch lilies collected from the road, anything I could get my green thumbed hands on – and was refreshed and my spirit renewed, no matter how exhausted I might have been before I picked up the shovel.

After an early retirement, I enrolled in and completed a Master Gardener program offered by the local extension office.

As an intern I was required to provide fifty hours of community service within two years and twenty annually thereafter. Even a few hours a week add up quickly; at the end my first twelve months, I was hovering around three times what was needed to stay certified. When severe weather grounds me, I feel guilty about not being able to go in. This is my job and I take the responsibility seriously. However, it is more than that. I miss my co-workers.

Among our choices were maintaining the garden at the governor’s mansion, manning an information booth at the county fair, cultivating perennials at the courthouse, or teaching at a sheltered workshop for disabled adults. I believe we have a match! A grandson on the autism spectrum, gardening and a ten minute drive – it’s me!

The first day on the job, I was assigned to teach Kimberly and Steven double digging and planting tomatoes in square foot sections. Even though I had no practical experience with these two techniques, I dug in, figuring enthusiasm and desire was all it took. (I was not wrong.) Double digging is an effective method of aerating the soil as well as a strenuous activity. As the season progressed, Kimberly, Steven and I planted radish, pumpkin, green bean, cucumber, lettuce, zinnia, cosmos and other flower seeds along with several types of peppers. All summer long we weeded, watered and picked vegetables. Our large garden furnishes produce to sell at our farmers’ market and to local eateries. In addition, we have provided flowers for weddings and bushel baskets of tomatoes for home canners.

My mother would be shocked to learn that I brought home Brussels sprouts, steamed them, ate them, and enjoyed them, without first suffocating them under cheese sauce.
We are Midwesterners which means that outdoor gardening is possible for only a few months a year. To earn additional money for our clients, we Master Gardeners team up with the sheltered workshop clients growing, harvesting and providing microgreens to upscale restaurants. Most crops are easy care and ready to harvest ten days after planting. Sprigs of beets, cilantro, basil, bak choi, radishes, and sunflowers adorn steaks, baked potatoes and salads at select bistros. When a harvest produces more than we can sell, clients and Master Gardeners sometimes are allowed to take home an ounce or two. I’d never even heard of bak choi but now sprinkle it on fried rice. At home, I grow cilantro and radish microgreens but as I walk by I can’t resist grabbing them for a taste before they mature. I am eating greens!

My co-workers have captured my heart.

As months passed, Kimberly and I became special friends. She tells me about her cat who calls her “Mom.” She shows me her new shoes and shyly displays the jewelry Steven buys for her. She even tells me her dreams of becoming a bride. Kimberly is forty years old, looks twenty-four, and is severely developmentally disabled. She hugs me when I leave, and I tell her I am proud of her and I love her. Our first Halloween she gave me a precious piece of hand drawn artwork: a jack-o-lantern with hearts replacing the customary triangles for the eyes, nose and mouth. She signed it, “Your nice.”

At our Christmas party, Steven proclaimed us The Three Musketeers.

Imagine my surprise when Timothy, severely autistic, after months of harvesting together, spoke to me for the first (and only) time as I was leaving for the day. “It was nice to see you.” This gives me hope that my own grandson will someday initiate a conversation with me.

Jeffrey, whom I call our unofficial quality control supervisor, is meticulous when harvesting microgreens. Not one speck of soil dare fall into the colander. Sometimes when I hurry I do make a mistake, which Jeffrey immediately catches. He points to the offending particle, shakes his head slightly, and rewards me with a wry smile when I retrieve it. In spite of my occasional carelessness, Jeffrey elbow bumps me and refers to us as BFF.

We have two artists, Michael and Jeremy, working in our group designing and creating toad houses, toads, and frogs to sell as accessories to those in the community who have outdoor fairie gardens. A special mix of vermiculite, cement and terra cotta coloring is spread over the outside of a hanging basket, cutting a hole large enough for Sir Toady McToad to enter, then dried and topped with a hand crafted toad.

Each client has an individually designed program to foster job skills and independence. Michelle, a bubbly, talkative and athletic young woman recently transferred out of the sheltered workshop to a job out into the community as a part-time receptionist, a position that fits her personality perfectly. Steven works afternoons four days a week at the community college cafeteria and Kimberly is training as a shampoo assistant for a dog grooming business. Graduating “out into the community” is a goal of my co-workers, something that can take years to accomplish.

My Master Gardener experience benefits me in many ways. I retired early to escape a job where I was bullied, and working with the clients, and the plants, at the sheltered workshop has helped heal my emotions and I have learned to trust people again. Gardening is physical, even hard, labor and needed exercise for a middle-aged woman. The other gardeners and I share plants, seeds and back yard tips. When I passed out canna rhizomes I was in return bombarded with hostas as well as milkweed, eastern purple coneflower, Shasta daisy and other seeds. Each year we Master Gardeners host a Halloween and a Christmas party which allows us to relax and socialize with the clients while enjoying home baked goods.

Volunteering at the sheltered workshop has changed my view of life. At the end of every shift, I hug Naomi, the paid employee (“kindness” is the word she lives by) who oversees our operation, and say, “I get so much more from here than I could ever give.”

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