Cultivating life skills

Cultivating life skills

Developmentally disabled adults thrive in garden




By Sharon A. Heilbrunn - UNION-TRIBUNE  October 21, 2006 EL CAJON – Eight years ago, the staff at St. Madeleine Sophie’s Center started a garden with about $500 worth of seeds.

Today, the 2-acre site includes a citrus orchard, two greenhouses, trails, flower gardens, a pumpkin patch, a worm farm and much more. St. Madeleine’s – a school for developmentally disabled adults – treasures the certified organic garden not just for its serenity and beauty, but for its use as a training platform where students can develop work and social skills.


About 30 students work in the garden each day, said Marian Cocolin, garden manager. They dig deep to plant or mix soil; some tie on a hat before weeding, watering or fertilizing the landscape.

Students also maintain the greenhouses and tend the worm farm, a project that allows the school to earn some money by shipping worm kits to biology classes throughout the country.

“The work is enjoyable,” Cocolin said, “and students perform achievable tasks to give them self-confidence.”

Students are trained and paid to work in the garden. Because everything in the garden is for sale to the general public, it’s considered a “microrevenue program,” meaning that any proceeds are put back into the school, said Erich Foeckler, associate director of development.

“Everyone has a plan and works toward new goals, ranging from as simple as learning to tie a shoe or as complex as running a cash register,” Foeckler said.

Students’ disabilities include Down syndrome, autism, epilepsy and cerebral palsy. Even relatively simple tasks can take a lot of time and repetition, Cocolin said.

“A garden is a patience place,” she said. “It’s a forgiving hobby and a great environment for teaching people that have developmental disabilities.”

Leslie Wable, 28, has been working in the garden for nearly five years.

“I go down on my knee and I dig a hole,” he said, explaining his duties. “I put the plants in, and I cover it with dirt. I also make sure the ground is level. It’s a lot of work that needs to get done.”

Wable is interested in one day getting a gardening job outside the school. “I’m a good worker,” he said. “I’m strong.”

Other programs at St. Madeleine’s include cooking, art, computers, aquatics, music and job development. Each student’s curriculum is tailored to their interests and skill level, Foeckler said.

“It’s not really a one-size-fits all approach,” he said. “It can’t be. In the garden, for example, some of the students cultivate the worms, other students package them for shipment; still other students will take them to the post office for mailing. That allows many of our students to participate, depending on what their skill level is.”

Mosaics made by students adorn the garden. Benches line the perimeter. The school is working on making the area more accessible to the public. Plans include installing new toilets and a direct road to the site, as well as extending the wheelchair-friendly pathways that wind through half the garden.

“The garden allows students to plant things and see them come to life,” Foeckler said. “Students really feel a sense of accomplishment.”