July 28, 2011 in Washington Voices

Children’s garden fosters trust and growth

Jill Barville jbarville@msn.com
J. Rayniak photo

Sharell Horwath of CASA Partners and Sue Elg, a child mental health specialist, sit in the Bee Kind Garden at the Casa House at the West Valley Learning Center, Tues., July 12, 2011. CASA Partners runs a therapy garden for foster children at the center using trained therapists and volunteers to help children in a variety of environmental and animal oriented activities. J.
(Full-size photo)

More information

To volunteer or donate to the Bee Kind Garden go to www.casapartners.org or call (509) 462-CASA (2272).

Plants thrive and grow best with fertile soil, sunlight, water and care. But if people were plants, abused and neglected children would be the flowers sown in barren soil where they’re stepped on and left unwatered. They’re the plants that need nurturing the most.

At CASA Partners’ Bee Kind Garden, each summer about 50 foster children receive the equivalent of sun, water and care to help them heal and thrive.

During four different sessions, 10 to 12 children come to the garden in Spokane Valley for two hours twice a week. It’s a safe place designed to teach them about nature and kindness while building trust in others and confidence in themselves.

“These kids are taking the brunt of what’s going on in the world,” said Bee Kind Garden manager Sharell Horwath. “We’re trying to make their world better.”

At the garden children choose from several activities planned to foster imagination, confidence and growth, such as painting T-shirts and birdhouses or making freezer jam and kites. Each child also has a row in the vegetable garden.

“They are tending something, nurturing it,” said Horwath.

But the most significant tending is of the children, who are matched to adult volunteers for unconditional acceptance and one-on-one interaction.

The pace is set by the child while their mentor listens, encourages and provides a sense of safety. “They do what they want, when they want,” said Horwath. “Some choose not to do anything. They don’t have to. The volunteer may sit in the sandbox with them.”

Or the volunteer may help the child weed and water their vegetables, look for snails beside the stream, sit in the teepee or participate in one of the activities.

“They become very attached to their mentor,” said Horwath. “They are so at peace here, as are the volunteers. Once I snag a volunteer I hardly ever lose them.”

Debbie Bock has volunteered at the Bee Kind Garden since she retired from teaching high school special education almost 13 years ago.

“We spend a lot of time crawling on our hands and knees and playing games,” said Bock, 78. “My knees start creaking but as long as I can run around after them, I’m going to stay.”

For the children, Bock said undivided attention shows the children they are valued and important when most of their life experiences have done the opposite. “They have your complete attention the whole time, which doesn’t happen very often in their homes or anywhere else,” she said.

All volunteers undergo a background check and receive training. Additionally, a licensed children’s mental health therapist, Sue Elg, is available to answer questions and help volunteers respond to any issues that crop up.

She can explain, for example, how to encourage a neglected child who hordes food at lunchtime or how to channel an aggressive child into physical activity.

Throughout the session the adults aim to make the experience encouraging. “Nobody gets mad at anybody. There are no ‘nos.’ It’s all redirecting,” said Horwath. “The volunteers are so delighted to work with that child. They do positive things to show how wonderful that child is. ‘You’re good. Life isn’t your fault.’”

According to Elg, this positive focus, with no demands placed on the children, enables them to just be kids while helping them process past trauma.

“I’ve seen kids go from standing in the corner refusing to speak to anybody to joining in with the group without fear of failure or loss,” said Elg. “Children need people who are going to be on their side and care about them no matter what they do or what they say.”

To further foster the program’s goals, they bring animals to the garden, from bunnies and goats to therapy dogs from Delta Society.

“The animals give the children comfort,” said Horwath. She described a boy who frantically wanted to leave until a therapy dog started doing tricks. “That was the one thing that calmed him down. Kids will tell animals’ lots of things, lay on them, hug them and kiss them.”

Additionally, the children go on to the climbing wall at Mountain Gear and to the Busy Bee Ranch and Equestrian Center.

“Both of those things build confidence,” said Bock. “It’s usually the first time they’ve gotten to do something like that. It’s so much fun to watch them be kind of scared but once they get going you can’t get them off.”

And at the end, children take home photo albums and journals chronicling their successes, so they can remember their time in the garden.

“It’s a very empowering experience for children who have experienced such loss,” said Elg. “It’s kind of magical.”

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