The best part of Robert's week is when he gets to go with his friends to dig into soil and work with plants.
For him, there is something comforting about working with his hands and helping plants thrive.
"I like to learn about plants," Robert said. "It calms me down and takes me with the flow."
Twice a week, six students with the Gresham-Barlow Adult Living Program spend their afternoon as part of a pilot program created in early February to utilize a newly constructed greenhouse in Main City Park.
Main City Flora is an exploratory floriculture program created to cultivate local students' — like Robert — passion for plants, representing a continuation of high school-based teaching that also occurs in the garden.
"There is nothing better than getting your hands dirty," said Jim Card, director of the Gresham Japanese Garden and the mastermind behind Main City Flora. "We realized the students had a lot of talent and passion that could be developed."
The program, created by Card, is a way for students to explore the field of floriculture. It teaches skills that specifically prepare people for job placement within the industry, arranging internships across the region once the students graduate.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the students are transported to the greenhouse along with an aid for a fun two hours. In addition to the practical, hands-on work, there are also lessons in "The Shoebox," which functions as more of a traditional classroom setting next door to the greenhouse.
In the inaugural term, students will learn the basic parts of how the greenhouse functions. The program will include getting comfortable with the dirt; learning about and planting seeds; identifying the best pots for specific plants; a field trip to Al's Garden & Home; planting flowers; and tending to nature. Card said by the end of the first term, the students will know everything from the scientific names of plants to how to ensure they thrive in this climate.
Beyond the new greenhouse, the program will also take advantage of its perfect location. Because it's situated within Main City Park, 219 S. Main Ave., the students will be able to work in the park, at Tsuru Island Japanese Garden and Ebetsu Plaza — putting their knowledge to practical use.
After they master the basics, future curriculum will include plant hydration, pruning trees, weeding, grafting, landscaping and more.
"The sky is the limit," Card said.
Opportunities to learn
Main City Park and the Japanese Garden were always designed to be teaching spaces.
In 2011, Card developed a gardening program with students from the SPED class at Gresham High School under the supervision of Jenny Halley. Known as KAZ Kids, the students visit the Japanese Garden twice a week to pull weeds, learn about plants and more.
But as many of those KAZ Kids aged out of the program, Card wanted to continue providing opportunities for them to flex their nature knowledge. Thus Main City Flora was created for the students as they transitioned into the Adult Living Program.
"A lot of the students who wanted to participate in the program were exposed to gardening in high school," said Kara Tison, with the Adult Living Program. "We aim to provide a variety of work experiences so they can be matched with their interests."
The Adult Living Program allows students with intellectual or physical challenges to continue attending school between the ages of 18 and 21, after they have finished high school. The program teaches the skills they need to lead independent lives. One of the major goals is to prepare the students for the workforce, and the program has multiple worksites across the community that 31 students go to throughout the week, now including Main City Flora.
The unemployment rate for people with disabilities — currently 10.5% — is twice as high as that for workers who don't have disabilities. Having knowledge about gardening and landscaping gives them one potential path forward.
Through Main City Flora, students not only develop a passion for working with plants, they also get to meet people throughout the industry and build their communication skills. The program creates a skillset they can use the rest of their lives.
"This is teaching them something they can fall back on as young adults," Card said. "I am blessed to have people willing to help out and share."
In preparation for the new program to serve the students, Card came up with the idea for the greenhouse. He utilized a grant last winter to begin building it from scratch. Throughout the process, many companies provided generous donations and support. Orient Electric provided the electrical hookups, switches and lights at a hugely discounted price. Cedarglan Floral Company donated many supplies and plants, as did Tony's Garden Center.
"The community is embracing what Jim is doing — people want to give," said Sue Hughes, Gresham Japanese Garden board member and community liaison for the exploratory program.
The students in Main City Flora are easy to spot. As members of the program, they all proudly wear bright red aprons emblazoned with the group's insignia.
The outfits not only keep them clean while working in the dirt, but also creates a sense of unity among the participants.
"This is a status symbol in the nursery world," Card told the students as they first donned their gardening aprons.
The first part of the program will have the students filling pots with soil and replanting Azaleas. Eventually those flowers will be sold to the community, helping to fund Main City Flora. The students will also get to take home some of the plants to give to family and friends.
Later this spring, they will create hanging flower baskets — representing a culmination of the first term of Main City Flora. Those baskets will be put up throughout Main City Park, serving as a thanks to the community that has embraced the budding program.
"Everyone was so willing to help and support us," Card said.
The future is bright for Main City Flora. Card anticipates the program growing in the future, with more students and potentially hosting a summer program. He also envisions more partnerships with local businesses and organizations.
There are ways for the community to get involved and support the budding greenhouse program. Volunteers are always welcomed, as are donations of funds or gardening supplies. The group is also in need of more pots and trays.
Others who want to give back can also join in on weekly work parties throughout Main City Park and Tsuru Island, weeding and maintaining the gardens. The work is done from 9 a.m. to noon every Saturday.
As for the students, they are filling the greenhouse with smiles.
Robert isn't sure if he will follow in his family's footsteps — both his parents work at J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co. — but he does have a knack for cultivating plants. He said it's fun spending his afternoons in the greenhouse, and he enjoys being with his peers.
"I may do it as a hobby," he said with a smile.
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