Looking for something substantive to do with C., the young boy I mentor, I spied the Willis House Garden Project in the bulletin one Sunday. Reasoning all boys like playing in the dirt, I made arrangements to meet Claire Dees at the garden one recent afternoon. C. and I were to help weed the garden and hopefully harvest a few ripe tomatoes.
It turns out C. was excited about my plans for us and even asked if he could bring along a friend. The three of us made our way to the Willis House, a group home operated by Hi-Hope, an organization providing employment and residential services to adults with developmental disabilities. Pulling onto the driveway of the home off Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road, we immediately saw the garden in a far corner of the backyard. The tomato bushes bore so much fruit they nearly doubled over to the ground.
We were climbing out of the car at the same time a minivan was unloading; two moms and six young children gathered in the parking lot and were greeted by David, a resident of the Willis House. After hugging each of the children he made his way over to us and quickly offered to show us the garden. “I don’t know what everything is, but it sure is growing,” he said.
Moments later Dave, the two young men with me, and I stood on the edge of the garden admiring the tomatoes, squash and cucumber plants. About then Claire, Perimeter’s liaison to the Disabilities Outreach Ministry, appeared and put us to work. The younger children, who had been to the garden before, quickly dropped to their knees and began pulling weeds from the soil. Cameron and I pulled weeds, tied tomato plants back, and drove a few stakes in the ground to help support the taller plants.
Eventually five residents were outside mingling among the volunteers and talking about current events, music, gardening, and asking questions in an effort to get to know C. and his friend. It turns out David, the gentlemen who initially greeted us, owns a Wii, and C., intrigued, asked to see it. It was then that I had the chance to talk with Claire and learn more about the Garden Project.
“It began as a Compassion In Action project five years ago,” she explained her history with the Willis House. “What was meant to be a one-time landscaping project turned into two annual landscaping projects, then several seasonal projects, to this,” she pointed to the garden. “And now we are here once a week most of the summer.” As she spoke the small children weaved between and around us, carrying handfuls of weeds to toss away. “The garden was my husband’s idea, and it has been a great way to get the little ones involved and teach them about serving others.”
I then remembered an email I received from Nicole, one of the moms working in the garden that day. She wrote:
“Little did I know when my children and I planted seeds in little pots this spring that we would end up being blessed beyond just harvesting vegetables. Our intentions had been to put our seeds in pots on our back patio and have a small garden of our own this summer. When we heard about the creation of a garden at the Willis House, we decided that would be where we could donate our plants, help the residents and still enjoy a garden experience.
I have been amazed at how much this experience has blessed our family. Our kids look forward to going each week and leave telling me how much fun they’ve had. They have grown out of their shells as they have begun to get to know each of the residents by name. We have had many discussions on the way home that centered on God’s love for us and for others, how He has uniquely created each individual for His purposes, and why we are called to serve others. These discussions are what I have treasured most. Not only are they seeing the value of a garden, they are taking to heart the value of serving others for the cause of Christ.”
Unexpectedly, a storm suddenly blew in. Thunder and lightning loomed over us; we cut our gardening chores short and went inside the Willis House to continue our conversation. There Claire’s husband, Mark, stood over the sink washing a cucumber. In short order he peeled and sliced it, and passed it around on a plate. “Our first harvest,” he said. I had a bite and remembered that the food you grow with your own hands always tastes so much better than that you can buy in a store.
“He comes over all the time,” Claire pointed to her husband, “just to spend time with the guys. They love company.” As we talked further I learned that Claire and Mark have virtually adopted the Willis House residents, introducing not only landscaping and gardening, but movie nights and dinners out in the community, as well as a small team of other volunteers who bring their own interests and talents into the Willis House. The Dees have indeed brought a meaningful social life to these men where before they interacted mostly with their caregivers and an occasional visiting family member.
To my delight, C. wandered up and listened to my conversation with Claire. He even asked a few of his own questions about the residents and Claire and Mark’s work. Claire smiled at him and told him everything he wanted to know, as well as shared with him why she has chosen the Disabilities Outreach Ministry as her venue for serving Christ. She concluded with inviting us back whenever we wanted to visit, and especially if we wanted to help in the garden.
C., his friend and I washed the earth from our hands and soon made our departure. The young men shamelessly begged for pizza before going home, and I’m a sucker at heart so we found a place to eat, ran through the rain and piled into a booth. As we were waiting for our pizza to come to the table, C.’s friend remarked that he felt bad for the Willis House residents. He thought that their lives were so limited in contrast to others. That was when C. elbowed him and told him to shut up.
Before I could scold C., he admonished his friend further. “Don’t you see,” he said, “their lives are filled with so much love. In a lot of ways they are luckier than a lot of people.”
The tomatoes were too green for picking that day so we left the Willis House empty-handed. But not really. C., I think, had an abundant harvest. Like Nicole, I, too, was blessed to see the young boy in my life leave the garden with an understanding not only of why we serve others, but also of the joy from doing so.