Last week I provided a brief preview into the article I am preparing for a Wisconsin magazine on the topic of Horticultural Therapy (HT). This is a program where people who are certified master gardeners are encouraged to partner with professionals (such as doctors, nurses, counselors and physical therapists), who minister to people with special needs. The program is based on the principal that all of us derive a benefit by simply looking at a natural setting, which can be enhanced when we actually participate in planting, growing and harvesting the flowers, vegetables, trees and shrubs comprising nature’s bounty.
On Friday I attended a workshop designed for Wisconsin Master Gardeners to learn about the program so that they might implement HT activities in their respective communities. It involved some lecture, some hands on activities and (to my chagrin) some intense roleplay, wherein some of us attempted to lead the rest of us through a basic gardening project. The catch was that each group to be taught had some form of impairment, which made the work for both the leaders and the group members a greater challenge than most of us encounter when we plant seeds, pull weeds, or create a floral arrangement. The difficulty the leaders encountered trying to work with those who were restricted by physical or emotional limitations prompted me not to volunteer to be a leader. Gardening may be regarded in some cases as not for the faint of heart.
The workshop concluded with each of us sharing with everyone who participated that day our one take away from the day’s instruction and activities. Since this was a program about how to work with people rather than how and what to plant in our gardens, I thought about the basic principles and methods shared as part of the program’s content. They were essentially the same as those I have employed throughout my management career, working with office staff, clients and customers. Only there was that roleplay catch that altered my appreciation for what it takes to respectfully work with those who require more time, attention and a greater demand on my patience when attempting to achieve a specific goal.
My role in the first session was that of a person who was totally blind and that from birth. I was wearing especially equipped goggles to help me block out all visual stimulation, so comments about color had no meaning for me. And when a question was asked of the six of us in my group, I had no idea who was being spoken to or if I should answer. In fact the noise level in the room, as there were four other groups close by actively engaged in their HT sessions, caused even more confusion than if we were involved in a more likely scenario of a trained leader working with one small group or even in a one-to-one session.
What I did have were the sensations of touch and smell and it intrigued me how even in that temporary roleplay activity those senses were heightened in me while I tried to cope with the frustrations of not being able to see or follow the conversations of those around me. The ability to touch and smell even proved to be distractions for me as I basically checked out of what was taking place within our group in order to focus on what I could enjoy.
As we discussed our experiences when we were gathered together once again in the large group, I felt sorry for those who had tried to lead in these challenging small group activities. Our program director had made it even more difficult by making sure each group had one person tasked with being a non-participant as part of their roleplay. In the second session he reversed this by having one person in each group be overly aggressive, the point being to create the type of surprises that await anyone attempting to work with a group of disparate people no matter what label they might bear as a group such as being blind, abused, autistic, depressed, incarcerated, or being an amputee with limited physical dexterity. We were, in fact, encouraged to lower the bar of our own expectations when implementing an HT program as it takes time for both the leader and the participants to learn to work together.
My take away, after all that I had experienced that day, was a heightened awareness towards the dynamics of any audience I work with as well as a greater sensitivity for the personalities of each individual within that group. Even the care required in the words we use for what is termed “person-first language” when discussing our experiences was impressed upon me as I listened to each of us stumble in expressing our thoughts.
That I may ultimately “volunteer” as a leader in a real time situation is a given. It is part of why I attended the workshop. The first goal may be confined to writing a magazine article. The larger, long-term goal is to use whatever knowledge and skill I may have to bring a little of the spirit of Eden into another person’s life for however brief a time.