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Feature: doing well by doing good.

Hope grows at two local greenhouses

Greenhouses are upbeat places. They seem to be flooded with sunshine even on days when the sky is grey. They are fragrant, often riotously colorful and exist in a climate that admits of no harshness, no jolting changes or unpleasant extremes. And yet, for all their heady sensory stimuli, it is always a soothing experience to enter this warm, humid world where plant life thrives in a perfect, and perfectly controlled, environment.

On Long Island, two greenhouses provide a perfect, controlled environment for other delicate subjects: the developmentally disabled. For people like Sabrina Walker, who falls into that category and has a passion for making things grow, they are also ideal places to get paid for doing exactly what makes them happy. Walker was fortunate 10 years ago to have found herself at the right place at just the right time: approaching Flowerfield Gardens, which is owned and operated in Holtsville by the Association for the Help of Retarded Children (AHRC), as a potential employee. The greenhouse was a brand new venture for AHRC and now Walker, who is 34, is one of its most seasoned employees.

Her father, Ken Walker, who also happens to be president of the board of trustees of AHRC/Suffolk, knows just what a break the new venture represented for his daughter. Had she been born a few years earlier, he said, there would have been pressure to put her in a facility for the mentally retarded, where the opportunities for fulfilling her potential would have been minimal.

"There was a time when parents were encouraged to put children like Sabrina in an institution," he said. Instead, Sabrina is gainfully employed, active socially, and happy. "She loves being outdoors," he said of his daughter. "She is amazing. Ask her anything about plants and she knows the answer. It's a wonderful thing for her."

In residence at one of AHRC's group homes, Sabrina lives with six other clients of the agency, all of whom have different jobs outside the facility but come together in the evening. Unless, of course, they are otherwise engaged. According to her father, "Sabrina is very busy."

Ideas Bloom at G.R.O.W.

Another greenhouse workplace for the developmentally disabled on eastern Long Island is the Greenhouse Recreation Opportunities Workshop (G.R.O.W.), located on the West Sayville Golf Course. Founded by Robin Jacobs in 1991 as a project of the Developmental Disabilities Institute (DDI), it is staffed with older children and adults with autism and other developmental disabilities.

"Win-win" is the phrase used by both Jacobs and Joe Mammolito, executive director of AHRC/Suffolk County, to describe the relationship between their respective organizations, the workers who play such important roles in making their ventures successful, and the public at large.

One such mutually beneficial arrangement is actually spelled out at G.R.O.W., where Jacobs struck a deal with the Suffolk County Parks Commissioner 15 years ago: If she would assume responsibility for putting the beautiful, but neglected 103-year-old Lord and Burnham greenhouse in working order, and then grow all the plants for the county's 27 parks, the county would lease the building to DDI rent-free.

Jacobs was certainly lured by the historic greenhouse's location on the scenic golf course, whose rolling greens were once part of a grand estate. But even more attractive to her was the opportunity she could provide to people whose potential is too often ignored.

"I have a degree in psychology," said Jacobs, who saw in the greenhouse a place where the developmentally disabled "could learn things in a community setting. They could learn social skills."

They acquire skills and confidence through their horticultural training and practice--taking instruction and then responsibility for their tasks in the greenhouse and in the fields, dealing with each other and with the public (the greenhouse sells to retail customers seven days a week). But then, said Jacobs, "they end up using those skills in their home environment."

"It has been very satisfying," she said, "to see people who have most of their lives been doing nothing, and to see now that they can do so many things."

It has also turned out very well for the county, which provides the plant material for its parks. "Then we do all the planting," said Jacobs. "A win-win."

Planting the Seeds for Flowerfield Gardens

AHRC's Joe Mammolito was contacted 10 years ago by a greenhouse owner in Holtsville looking to sell. Mammolito was dubious at first, since he knew almost nothing about greenhouses. "But I looked at it and I decided to buy it," he said.

In addition to the greenhouse operation, the 3.1-acre property also had a private home that he realized could serve, with some refurbishing, as a respite house, a place where parents of developmentally disabled offspring could drop them off for short stays. "It's booked constantly", says Mammolito. "Parents need that break."

Mammolito also thought about the many highly functional adults in AHRC's various programs and how well-suited they would be to greenhouse work. "We knew this population loves routinized work and they are very good at it," he said.

With an instructor and an assistant, greenhouse manager Roseann McCaffrey supervises teams of workers who are trained to plant, water, clean and transport the plants, and then put to work. "When they come to work, they come prepared," she said. "They dress for the rain, they wear gloves and boots. No one ever says it's too cold or too wet."

Over the years Flowerfield Gardens added greenhouses and built its market. Mammolito put the yearly sales figure at $250,000, noting, "There are a lot of corporate sales, lots of businesspeople affiliated with agencies who are pleased to support the greenhouse and know they will get a quality product."

In December, 4,000 poinsettias went out the door. In the spring, G.R.O.W. sells to all three of Suffolk County College's campuses, and the retail sales shop at 1210 Portion Road does a steady business. "We have regular customers who have been coming back for many years," said McCaffrey.

The customers like the prices. The crews are happy to be doing productive work that is appreciated, and Joe Mammolito is pleased "to be helping people to have a better life and an independent life."

Veteran greenhouse worker Sabrina Walker might agree, if she had the time to tell you.

Sidebar: Parents with Missions

In 1949, a small group of parents eager to provide a life of opportunities for their children with mental retardation launched what is today a statewide organization--the Suffolk Chapter is known as the Association for the Help of Retarded Children (AHRC). While AHRC's comprehensive programs have expanded over the years to serve more than 2,000 families, the original goal of those parents is carried out. AHRC states that it remains "firmly grounded in the philosophy of that beginning." To that end, its programs "are designed to offer choices, dignity and independence" and it relies for advice on a voluntary board of directors comprised primarily of parents.

In 1966, it was again a handful of parents, anxious to provide a better life for their children with autism and other severely challenging behaviors, who planted the seed for the Developmental Disabilities Institute (DDI). Their campaign for a school to address the special education and therapeutic needs of their children was successful and the wide-ranging program of services now provided by DDI to more than 1,500 families stands as a testimonial to their efforts. Today DDI has 26 residential and day habilitation sites and six main campuses on Long Island offering education and other support to help the developmentally disabled lead productive and fulfilling lives.--Mary Cummings
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Author:Cummings, Mary
Publication:VOX
Date:Mar 22, 2007
Words:1292
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