Horticultural Therapy Alliance builds wheelchair accessible garden at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center
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This story has been updated.
By Zoe Seiler, contributor
Decatur, GA – A few years ago, two women saw a need in their community to support those with disabilities. Rachel Cochran and Wendy Battaglia met at a horticultural therapy training program in Colorado and started Trellis Horticultural Therapy Alliance in Decatur in 2017.
Cochran and Battaglia discovered three pivotal things: only a handful of horticultural therapy programs exist; many human services organizations were interested in including the practice but didn’t know where to begin; and the opportunities for people with impaired mobility to engage in gardening are severely limited, according to the Trellis website.
Both women partnered together to create a nonprofit that supports, educates and guides organizations and people through therapeutic gardening programs and accessible garden spaces.
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Cochran was finishing up two years of horticultural therapy training in 2015 when her daughter was hit by a car in front of Agnes Scott College in December 2015 and she is now living with a severe traumatic brain injury, she said in an email.
Cochran’s daughter wasn’t the inspiration for her going into horticultural therapy, but it helped Cochran fully understand disability– how it disrupts life dreams, family dynamics and requires the individual and their family members to confront loneliness and isolation on a daily basis, Cochran said.
“Gardening is such a wonderful instrument for combating isolation – it gets you outside, gives you a task, helps you develop a skill, which in turn, builds self-confidence,” Cochran said. “Then there is the whole metaphor of the one who is usually cared for, now becomes the caretaker of their plants. It is a beautiful story.”
Trellis is working to combat that loneliness and isolation through garden therapy and works to improve “the physical, mental or cognitive health of different groups of people recovering from illness or injury, or living with long-term physical disability or mental health disorders,” the Trellis website says.
Trellis works with those who have suffered brain or spinal cord injuries, the elderly, stroke survivors, those with multiple sclerosis, incarcerated individuals, those with developmental disabilities, mental health disorders and others.
“With garden therapy, we’re doing more broader goals. We’re doing reducing isolation, wellness – because to be physically engaged in something addresses wellness goals,” Battaglia said.
She added that being in a group addresses well-being from other perspectives like spiritual well-being, emotional well-being, to reduce isolation, to build community to connect like-minded people, so they can have conversations with somebody who’s going through a similar injury.
“Especially after any kind of injury, the ability to grip a tool and scoop the tool and scoop soil, all of those actions are the same actions that you require to be able to feed yourself,” Battaglia said. “You need that same action to be able to independently brush your own teeth, So they’re the rehab horticulture therapy goals, you’re just addressing those goals in two ways – either somebody gardened before, and they want to get back to gardening, but they also want to be as independent so you’re using that as your modality. That’s the motivator.”
Those who have suffered a catastrophic injury can all of a sudden be in a wheelchair and people with disabilities are very isolated, Cochran said.
“My daughter had a severe traumatic brain injury from being hit by a car when she was 12, and she is very isolated. We’re a very well-connected family but when her peers turn away, when she starts a new school and still has trouble connecting with the population of kids without disabilities, there is really no good answer,” Cochran said.
Battaglia said isolation is the biggest challenge with disabled populations since they can’t drive themselves and can’t go anywhere.
“Just think about what are the things that you love to do and you know eventually you’re going to get back out there doing them,” Battaglia said. “Can you imagine a lifetime of all of those things that you had the freedom to do when you wanted to do them, that’s just not available to you without there being some kind of community support to make that happen?”
“It’s really interesting because I think in the past few months since this mass (pandemic) has happened, the average person can really relate to what isolation means, to what being confined to your home means. Which I don’t think people could really relate to before,” she added.
Currently, Cochran and Battaglia are working on building an ability garden at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center– the first wheelchair accessible garden in Atlanta.
“One of the goals for the ability garden is to reduce isolation and get people engaged and reconnected to something, something that has an outlet, something that you can learn and enjoy nature and be part of a group of like-minded people that like to garden,” Cochran said.
The Callanwolde Fine Arts Center is a community arts conservatory with a 12-acre campus in Atlanta. It is owned by the Callanwolde Foundation, a nonprofit that works to preserve, restore and develop the Callanwolde Estate to be the premiere public arts and cultural center, according to the Callanwolde website.
The center offers many programs such as pottery, jewelry making, photography and painting.
Callanwolde also has a greenhouse and space for flower beds and gardens and a couple of years ago, Callonwolde reached out to Trellis as the organization was looking for a horticultural therapist and ways to utilize the greenhouse.
“It was a perfect match because they were looking to do programs there to support these populations, and we were looking for a facility to support our populations. It was definitely, I would say, a divine intervention there, for sure, that we found each other and can support each other’s mission,” Battaglia said.
Cochran and volunteers built two raised garden beds on Saturday, Sept. 19, at Callanwolde and plan to have another build day to install the surface. The Atlanta Botanical Garden donated $500 worth of lumber for the ability garden.
“The real issue is the surface. A lot of gardens have wood chips on them and you can’t wheelchair through wood chips. You have to have a nice compactible (surface), like crushed slate or granite sand or concrete or pavers, something that you can compact and get a wheelchair that won’t get stuck,” Cochran said.
Callanwolde Executive Director Andrew Keenan said the organization had started a tradition of working with people with disabilities. Callanwolde has a financial aid fund to help those with disabilities and for a while the money was only going to veterans with PTSD and other disabilities.
Callanwolde also extended the scholarship fund to the horticulture therapy program so Trellis’ populations with disabilities can do the Trellis programs at Callanwolde for free, Cochran said.
“My goal is that we can introduce a lot of people to gardening and to help a lot of people. I know, there’s been studies, that working with your hands is a really good way to reduce stress in your life,” Keenan said.
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“We have this incredible asset that used to only be accessible for one family. Now we have thousands of people that can use it and, to me, that’s very, very important. The wider the range of people and abilities or economically, racially, the better. It’s better for everybody. We are looking for ways to do that,” he added.
Battaglia also wants the garden to be an example to the community so others can figure out how and what they could build for their family member who has a disability and show people that it is possible.
“We want to be a place to host programs. We want to be a resource. We want it to be an opportunity to educate family members and caregivers and also as a place to educate other people just in general,” Battaglia said.
“Hopefully in about a month we’ll be able to get some people in wheelchairs out there and get a fall garden going. We’re very excited. We think the ability garden has so much potential,” Cochran added.
Trellis wants people to be able to actively garden, be safe while doing so and not have any barriers to gardening.
“Part of what we do, we love to get people engaged in gardening and socializing but also set them up with the resources that they can take home,” Cochran said. “If we have to help them with personalized garden spaces or get them engaged in a local community garden that might need some accessibility solutions to get people with impaired mobility out there, then we want to be a resource for the community to help others do what we’re doing to make gardening more accessible for everyone.”
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