Lush with greenery and safely fenced in, the garden plays a vital role for Chicago's youth with autism who are learning a bevy of skills every time they get their hands dirty and their brows sweaty.
By visiting the mini farm several times per week during the school year, the kids discover how to farm fresh food, work as a team, take direction, and see tasks through to completion. They'll use these same valuable skills in the workforce after graduation.
Through the seasons, students discover the joys of sowing seeds, watching tasty vegetables grow, and then reaping the beautiful plants to eat. That is, once they're taught how to prepare them.
Urban Autism Solutions program director, Heather Tarczan, says when the kids are first handed bags of produce to take home, they don't know how to react. Lettuce and broccoli are not as easy to munch as chips or Pop-Tarts.
To combat the blank stares, staff gather the students around for food preparation demonstrations, showing them how to make delicious salads, smoothies, and salsas.
Learning to make and enjoy healthy food like these salad greens is as vital to the students' success as the job training.
They quickly come to realize the lifecycle and origins of fresh produce; that it doesn't appear at the supermarket fully formed, but comes from hard work on a farm.
Heather says farming is a great opportunity for the kids to get physical, and the activity levels the playing field between classmates. At the end of the day, everyone is equally sweaty, dirty, and exhausted but satisfied.
For many students with autism, sensory challenges are part of everyday life. When the weather is too hot to too cold, when a sweater is too itchy, or cereal is too soggy, life becomes a bit more irritating and distracting.
The sensory experience of farming, touching unfamiliar textures, and spending time outside in the fresh air is good for students, and helps broaden their horizons.
Lion Carol first heard about Urban Autism Solutions when researching activities for her son Jason. He enjoys participating and making friends in the Urban Hike with Mike program. Youth with autism gain independence by learning to navigate the city by themselves on foot and using public transportation.
It wasn't long before Carol told our Lions Club about the garden run by UAS, and suggested we volunteer. After several years of offering our time, our club has proven itself a reliable partner when the farm needs help digging and planting.
On this bright Saturday morning in May, we pulled on our gloves and picked up trowels to help plant the new Sensory Garden, a circular plot of raised soil filled with all sorts of flowers, succulents, bushes, and herbs.
The sensory garden is a peaceful new space designed for anyone to taste, touch, hear, see and smell. Visitors can pluck and taste fresh herbs like mint, listen to the sweet sounds of gentle wind chimes, feel the texture of any leaf and petal, and smell its aroma.
Birdhouses will attract local birds so visitors can pause their hard work, watch some wildlife and tune into their senses.
We also helped by pulling weeds in the raised vegetable beds and chucking them into the wooden compost bins, where they will eventually turn into rich soil for the garden.
UAS also donates 20% of its annual produce harvest to Grace Seeds Ministry to support local food banks on Chicago's West Side.
These huge weeds are no joke!
Time to mulch!
Fresh lavender and other herbs.
By noon, we were covering the newly-planted garden with a thick layer of mulch as a finishing touch to keep the soil moist and weeds at bay.
Sharon Parmet, the communications director at UAS, taught us a great trick - spread the mulch a few inches away from the base of each plant to prevent disease and rot.
Funny enough, the mulch smelled suspiciously like BBQ sauce, but I didn't taste it to confirm my theory.
At the back of the 1.2 acre property stands a greenhouse for growing vegetables like spinach and tomatoes in the wintertime.