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Andy Shackleford, Barbara Sherrod and Betty Johnson at the Bill Stewart Center in Moulton. The Moulton center is the first in the area to have its own garden. The Bill Stewart Center and two centers in Decatur are all run by Centers for the Developmentally Disabled of North-Central Alabama.
Daily photo by John Godbey
Andy Shackleford, Barbara Sherrod and Betty Johnson at the Bill Stewart Center in Moulton. The Moulton center is the first in the area to have its own garden. The Bill Stewart Center and two centers in Decatur are all run by Centers for the Developmentally Disabled of North-Central Alabama.

Growing vegetables, confidence
Developmentally disabled learn gardening at Bill Stewart Center

By Kristen Bishop
kbishop@decaturdaily.com · 340-2443

MOULTON — Mentally challenged residents in Lawrence County are growing vegetables, flowers and self-esteem in a new garden at the Bill Stewart Center.

Regional Extension Agent Jerry Chenault, center employees and volunteers completed the garden in June, and participants there — whom the staff refers to as “consumers” — now are able to learn a new skill while creating a product.

“We wanted to be able to train them and show them what it actually meant to grow their own vegetables and see their work through to a finished product,” said Center Manager Donna Dutton.

“They’re so excited to know they can grow vegetables that they can actually eat.”

First in area with garden

The Moulton center is the first in the area to have its own garden, said Dutton. The Bill Stewart Center and two centers in Decatur are all run by Centers for the Developmentally Disabled of North-Central Alabama.

About five consumers work in the 46-by-50-foot garden for about 30 minutes every day, pulling weeds, watering the plants and picking vegetables.

They seemed eager to show off the fruits of their labor Friday as they carried in a box of freshly picked squash and radishes.

The budding gardeners also planted corn, tomatoes, okra, bell peppers, banana peppers and flowers, said Dutton.

The consumers are glad to finally have something to show for their hard work, said Chenault, who organizes non-traditional programs with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

He and volunteers Curtis and Joyce Cole helped dig and plant the garden about two years ago, but unhealthy soil and bad placement kept the plants from thriving.

“We had a regular garden, and it just didn’t produce for the first two years. When there was a big rain, it would flow into the garden, and it would just hold the moisture,” he said.

“Plus, we started on a plot of ground that was subsoil left over from the building process — clay, compacted subsoil — that’s not good for gardening.”

Thanks to a $2,000 grant from Alabama Mountains, Rivers and Valleys RC&D Council, Chenault was able to build raised-bed gardens and add soil and fertilizers.

The raised beds not only prevent excess water from drowning the plants, but also make it easier for physically handicapped consumers to participate, said Chenault.

Consumers turn the hard work into a small profit for the center by selling the produce to local group homes and center employees. The money — which hasn’t amounted to much yet, said Dutton — goes into the Bill Stewart Center fund to purchase supplies for next year’s garden, pay consumers and fund other programs.

But the profit isn’t what motivates them, said direct support professional Betty Johnson, who teaches consumers how to garden and helps them with daily tasks.

“The other day, I brought some squash in, sliced it up and let everyone taste it. They were so excited,” she said. “Some like gardening more than others, but they all like the finished product.”

Dutton said the greatest benefit of the garden is the increased self-esteem it has given the consumers.

“It’s helped them see that they can contribute something to society, and they have a feeling of accomplishment,” she said. “Every time someone comes in the door, they want to show them the garden. They’re so proud of it.”

The center plans to open its new greenhouse next year, and Dutton said the lessons learned while working the garden will help make the greenhouse a success also.

Curtis and Joyce Cole, Moulton landscaper Joan Hood and members of Speake Christian Fellowship helped renovate the garden. The Bill Stewart Center is named for Joyce Cole’s father, who was instrumental in establishing the center in the early ’70s.

The state Mental Retardation Authority refers Lawrence County residents to the center where they can interact with their peers, learn skills and earn a paycheck.

“The main thing is to help them maintain the skills they learned in high school,” said Dutton. “And if we can teach them a new skill, it’s a wonderful thing. This garden has been a huge help.”

The Bill Stewart Center is funded by the state and private donations. Employees hold several fundraisers each year to raise money for new or existing programs.

Tournament to benefit CDDNC

Teams can register now for the 11th annual golf tournament sponsored by Renasant Bank and benefiting Centers for Developmentally Disabled of North-Central Alabama Inc.

The four-man scramble is set for Aug. 24 at Canebrake Golf Club in Athens. A $400 registration fee includes cart rental and lunch.

Prizes will be awarded to first-, second- and third-place winners.

For more information or to sign up, call 350-1458, ext. 263.

Kristen Bishop

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