Walking down Beechwood Boulevard, near the bend behind Community Day School, it’s practically impossible during warmer months not to see the raised wooden beds filled with flowers and vegetables.
For years, the Sally and Howard Levin Clubhouse, which is a licensed psychiatric and social rehabilitation program of Jewish Residential Services, has utilized the garden to foster growth for both Clubhouse members and the community at large, said Nancy Gale, executive director of JRS.
Whether it’s planting and harvesting vegetables, including, eggplant, tomatoes, radishes and cucumber, or herbs, such as basil, mint, sage, thyme and parsley, laboring in the Squirrel Hill space enables Clubhouse colleagues (a JRS term for staff and members) to work side by side, derive purpose and reduce the stigma of mental illness, said Gale.
“People who have had mental illness are people like everyone else, and they can do the same things that other people do,” said Gale. “These are people who should be valued members of the community. They're your neighbors, they're doing something positive in the community.”
In years past, Clubhouse colleagues operated the garden in a circular pattern. After seedlings were grown at the Clubhouse and later planted in the garden, crops were harvested then brought back to the Clubhouse, where colleagues would wash and use the items for meals.
This past year, however, with help from the Clubhouse’s food and horticulture coordinator, Hayly Hoch, and Grow Pittsburgh, a local nonprofit that helps community gardeners, Clubhouse colleagues expanded the garden’s use by starting a community supported agriculture (CSA) project.
"Not only are we investing in healthier diets and exercise while we spend time in the garden, but we are able to practice business management skills such as risk assessment and problem-solving with the launch of the CSA project,” said Hoch in a statement.
Clubhouse colleagues also increased the garden’s output this year. In 2019, 94 pounds of produce were harvested. In 2020, Clubhouse members harvested 325 pounds.
COVID-19 necessitated some changes this season, including the reduction the number of Clubhouse colleagues working in the garden at any given time, and, in an effort to reduce in-person mingling with students and staff of Community Day School, avoiding gardening during periods of the day when CDS students would be outdoors.
If not for the pandemic, “we would be there,” said Gale. “We definitely want to be part of the fabric of the community and have that interaction with the kids, but right now, for safety reasons, we’re being separate.”
The distancing, though understandable, has interrupted a valued element of daily life at CDS, explained Avi Baran Munro, CDS’ head of school.
“When we opened our doors here in 1996, it was always with the understanding that our 7-acre urban campus would be a resource for the community at large, with a strong commitment to our Squirrel Hill neighbors and organizational partners,” said Munro. “Sharing our space with Jewish Residential Services is a fulfillment of that collaborative vision.”
JRS and CDS still share certain facilities, like a shed where tools are kept, but the pandemic has compelled separation for everyone’s safety, said Gale.
The garden, which will soon be closed for the season, reflects a continued commitment to communal integration.
“The magnificent gardens they've built and tended so lovingly over the years provide inspiration and education to our students and families,” said Munro. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.