by Lisa Collier Cool

“Doing good for the people of Cheyenne” is the purpose of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, which helps individuals needing bolstering, provides food for Meals-on-Wheels, and gives judges a great place to give alternative sentences to troubled teens.

Across the country, in raised
flower beds for the wheelchair bound, in tiny
inner city plots, and in vast botanical gardens,
volunteers are helping thousands of people reap
the benefits of growing living things. In
Rockville, Maryland, blind children are learning
to feed the roots of plants they’ve nurtured
from seed. A ninety-year-old woman in Boston,
Massachusetts, leaves the solitude of her home
each morning to work in the sun at a community
vegetable plot that provides her with fresh
greens. In Louisville, Kentucky, juvenile
offenders spend their afternoons pulling up weeds
in a cooperative flower garden, rather than
pulling down a term in reform school. In all of
these cases, as well as others, volunteer
gardening programs are leading to significant
physical and emotional gains for everyone
concerned.

The use of gardening as therapy
is flourishing in America. According to Charles
Richman, executive director of the American
Horticultural Therapy Association (a national
organization that champions gardening), there are
some 1,000 programs nationwide that aim to
improve the landscape and bring increased
pleasure to those who do the improving. It’s
a thriving trend that owes much of its impetus to
a volunteer organization that took root in the
late 1940s. In those postwar years, thousands of
garden club members introduced demobilized,
wounded servicemen to gardening as occupational
therapy. The veterans gained future skills for
employment and something more precious –
improved health. According to studies conducted
since then, gardening contributes to physical and
mental healing. In one study, patients at
Northampton V.A. Medical Center in Massachusetts
were able to reduce their medication and
eliminate sleeping pills entirely by working
daily in the soil.

A firm belief that a
gardener’s spirit grows in tandem with the
flowers and vegetables that she cultivates has
inspired what may be a unique effort at
Wyoming’s Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. Most
gardening programs call for one group
(volunteers) to train and guide a second group
(disadvantaged youths, for instance). At
Cheyenne, no such distinction is made. Instead,
teams of “client volunteers” –
teenagers on probation, interested community
members, mentally and physically impaired adults,
senior citizens, and others — work together on a
variety of useful projects in a broad, green,
gently sculptured parkland.

“Cheyenne Botanic Gardens
is a real melting pot,” says the
program’s director, Shane Smith. Courts,
social services agencies, churches, and schools
regularly supply the program with new volunteers,
who roll up their sleeves and go to work on the
grounds or in one of three large year-round
greenhouses. Says Smith: “We’re an
extended family. There’s something magical
about the sense of community and dignity that
comes with this kind of productive work.”

The three-year-old Cheyenne
Botanic Gardens grew out of an earlier, humbler
project, the Cheyenne Community Solar Greenhouse,
which was designed, built, and run by local
teenagers under the guidance of Smith. “Duct
tape, wire, faith and volunteers kept the old
place going,” says Smith, “but it was a
battle.” Ultimately, the city was so stirred
by the volunteers doggedness that it agreed
to donate a park site and funds for state-of-the-art solar greenhouses built to
withstand the city’s fierce winds, frequent hailstorms, and sub-zero winter temperatures.

Cheyenne Botanic Gardens is the

result, and it is unusual in many ways. For one

thing, rather than merely providing educational

or aesthetic services, it has made doing good for

the people of Cheyenne its primary purpose. To

this end, Smith keeps automation to a minimum in

the gardens 6,800 square feet of

conservatory space. All watering, for example, is

done by hand. The goal is to create work, which

is often rehabilitation in the making. Says

Smith: “Watching a wilted plant perk up

after being watered gives a volunteer immediate,

positive feedback. Most of the plants we grow can

put up with a lot of abuse and still provide a

reward — a blossom, a new leaf, or a

harvest.”

The emphasis on productive work

is especially evident in the west greenhouse,

where volunteers cultivate food year round.

Freshly harvested fruits and vegetables are

distributed among volunteers daily, with the

remainder going to charitable programs such as

the Salvation Army and Meals-On-Wheels. The fresh

food is a double bounty — nourishment for the

body and warmth for the heart. When a volunteer

with cerebral palsy brings home lettuce she has

grown and shares it with fellow residents at a

state-sponsored group house, she derives a sense

of pride, not to mention a sense of pleasure, in

being able to provide.

In the central greenhouse,

where traditional herbs, shrubs, vines, cactus,

exotic flowers and tropical fruit trees line

winding paths that lead to waterfalls, the

atmosphere is serene, in keeping with the theme

“food for thought.” During winter

months the greenhouse is filled with the colors

and scents of spring– the season of change and

growth. As volunteers transplant, water, prune,

and fertilize, some of them take time out to

ponder their own growth. Others are like Doris

Stonier, a 70-year-old Cheyenne resident, who

simply feels “the satisfaction of doing, of

being active and part of something beautiful.

Working in this lovely, friendly place puts

small, inconsequential problems in

perspective.”

Gardening permits many workers

to weed out negative feelings, says Smith.

“We have a saying here that you take the bad

of the day out with the shovel. I’ve done it

myself many times. Exercise has a beneficial

effect on depression, and, believe it or not,

gardening is an excellent way to work through

feelings of anger or aggression. I’ve often

been told that we’ve worked a miracle with

some angry kid others have found

unmanageable.” One Cheyenne judge is so

persuaded of the program’s therapeutic value

that he routinely sentences youngsters guilty of

shoplifting or underage drinking to 40 or 100

hours of work in the gardens.

While volunteer workers are

helping themselves, they are also serving the

people of the city. In the east greenhouse,

volunteers cultivate bushes, trees and shrubs

that are hardy enough to be transplanted to

Cheyenne’s dry, windy public parks. Goodwill

Industries provides funding for vocational

training for mentally impaired adults, and Green

Thumb, a federally funded project, has

established a grant that permits poor, elderly

gardeners to be paid wages for their work.

But it’s the

“extended family” notion that Smith

thinks sets Cheyenne Botanic Gardens apart.

“The beauty of the program is that it has

something to offer to everyone. It’s a

thrill to see the little things that happen– a

senior citizen becoming a grandparent figure for

a depressed teenager, or a sullen kid beginning

to feel benevolent because he was able to help

someone in a wheelchair repot a plant.”

In fact, Shane Smith is

convinced that what is really being cultivated at

Cheyenne Botanic Gardens is a deeper knowledge of

self and spirit. “I look around and think,

This looks like a greenhouse and smells like a

greenhouse, but it’s also a garden where

people can grow.”

Reprinted with permission from Lear’s Magazine, July/August 1989