Fruit and Vegetable Garden Providing Hope at Women’s Recovery Center in Kansas

Aside from zucchini, sweet potatoes, onions, lettuce and strawberries, something very special is growing in a garden in Lawrence, Kan. With a little help from the community, the garden is yielding bushels of hope for women at a substance abuse treatment center.

In 2018, the Community Mercantile Education Foundation (CMEF), in partnership with the Douglas County Citizens Committee on Alcoholism (DCCCA), created a garden for First Step at Lake View, a residential drug and alcohol treatment facility. 

As part of their therapy, First Step residents actively volunteer in the garden. Many of the 30-40 women living at the facility help with planting, weeding and daily watering of the plants. Last year, they helped harvest more than 750 pounds of fresh produce that was used in their kitchen for healthy meals.

The women of First Step are not alone in performing the gardening work, however. CMEF also employs youth gardeners like Ruby McLendon, a junior at Free State High School, and Elise Gard, a sophomore at nearby Kansas University, to manage the daily gardening chores. These CMEF-certified gardening assistants also spend time with the residents, teaching them about gardening techniques and leading cooking classes utilizing the fresh produce.

“This isn’t our garden, it’s theirs,” Elise said. “These women have a deep connection with the garden. It plays such an important part in their healing process.”

This year, the “Growing Food, Growing Hope” garden at First Step is expanding to include an orchard with a dozen apple, pear and cherry trees, thanks to a donation from UnitedHealthcare of Kansas.

“This garden provides basic healthcare,” said Nancy O’Connor, executive director of CMEF. “We emphasize beauty and order because the women here need beauty and order in their lives. This garden is a source of healing, therapy and meditation.”

While this season promises to yield several hundred pounds of produce, the orchard is still a few years away from bearing fruit. An extensive irrigation system provided by UnitedHealthcare this spring will help ensure the trees’ health in the meantime.

“The women who helped plant these trees know they won’t be here when the fruit grows,” Nancy said. “But they see how future women at First Step will also tend to the orchard and use it as a way forward years from now.”