A student shows off the squash at the Green Chimneys vocational farmstand.

For 65 years, Green Chimneys School in Brewster, NY, has helped special-needs children find a place — in learning and in life — through the wonders of the natural world. The internationally recognized school was recently awarded a $5,000 grant as winner of the Green Education Foundation‘s 2012 Green Thumb Challenge.

The team at Green Chimneys uses organic gardening to reach vulnerable students, helping them build self-esteem and life skills. They believe gardening nourishes the bodies, minds and spirits of its nearly 200 special needs students, ages 5 through 20. By nurturing plants in this therapeutic horticultural setting, many students are able to feel a sense of self-worth for the first time.

Every summer, interns from across the world come to work with Green Chimneys students in the gardens and to learn about nature-based education.

“These are kids who have so many difficulties. They’ve been unable to thrive in their home school, and have struggled in a traditional environment,” explains Michelle Marquez, the Green Chimneys horticulture teacher. “Gardening lets them experience success they haven’t yet found inside a classroom.”

Gardener’s Supply is proud to support Green Chimneys School and other children’s organizations through a partnership with the Green Education Foundation. Its yearly Green Thumb Challenge awards a $5,000 grant to a youth gardening program that impacts students and community.

Every day the staff at Green Chimneys incorporates gardening in multiple ways. Marquez teaches students in weekly, hands-on gardening classes. Special-education teachers also integrate gardening lessons into core subjects, such as science, math, literature and social studies. At mealtimes, students eat foods they helped to grow. And after school, older students may choose to attend special programs, such as pickle-making or wool-dyeing. Younger students might spend time with a social worker or an occupational therapist in the 1-acre children’s garden or the 5-acre Boni-Bel vocational garden.

Through gardening, the students also become familiar with plants — and flavors — they might not experience elsewhere. “We grow a lot of crops that kids wouldn’t ordinarily try, like kale and asparagus,” says Boni-Bel program facilitator, Erin Backus. “They get interested in healthy eating. They’ll eat it if they know they helped grow it or harvest it.” Some difficult-to-reach children, such as those on the autism spectrum, respond especially well to the gardens’ flavors, textures and fragrances. Backus adds, “It wakes them up; their eyes pop open! They don’t have that anyplace else besides the garden.”

Every Green Chimneys student receives an age-appropriate Learn and Earn stipend for their work in the garden, country store or seasonal farmstand. “They feel a reward from working,” Marquez says, and learn important life skills they can take into adulthood and the workplace.

Scenes from the Boni-Bel farm at Green Chimneys.

—Aimee Diehl
Aimee Diehl writes from her home in rural Cornwall, VT,
where she lives with her husband, two daughters, and a dog.