COMHE Fieldwork Reflections
When I became aware that my static understanding of biology could not explain the health epidemics that were plaguing so many people in our contemporary society, I also became more engaged in Community Health Education. Through class work, I was introduced to many socioeconomic factors that affect health. With my understanding of logic models, executing programs, and theories of behavior change, I stepped into the public health field with a passion to “save the world”. Through working at The Horticultural Society of New York (HSNY), I was able to apply the skills I had developed in class. Through projects with HSNY, I recognized my own naivety to the world, which has driven me to further understand how others experience their own health in relation to their demographic or socioeconomic status. With their experiences, I can then begin to communicate on a level which will be received with greater understanding and empathy. This level of communication allows the topic of health to become more relevant to their lives
Outreach to Food Pantries for Development of Sustainable Food Systems
At the Horticultural Society of New York I assisted in many projects and was able to utilize the skills I had learned in class. I assisted the development team by writing descriptions of projects, letters to donors, and researching potential organizations to receive educational tool-kits. One of the larger projects I assisted involved researching and conducting outreach to food pantries in low-income neighborhoods that may be interested in building their own sustainable food systems or one that may want to connect with local gardens. The target neighborhoods were East Harlem, Bedford Stuyvesant, District 9, and 158th Morris avenue in the Bronx. These neighborhoods were targeted due to their food insecurity, and lack of access to fresh foods.
I chose to concentrate my research and outreach in Bedford-Stuyvesant since I was currently living in the area, and was familiar with the neighborhood and the people. Research on Bedford-Stuyvesant was conducted using online sources such as Food Bank NYC’s Food Program locator tool. In addition, we mapped the area to asses the number of food pantries, and to compile a list of addresses, phone numbers, and contacts. After the list was compiled, outreach was conducted mainly by cold calling, with some letter writing. John gave loose instructions and his thoughts on what he wanted from the project. Firstly, to reach out to food pantries to find out if they had open space for a garden, then to inquire if they would be interested in partnering with us to create a food producing garden. Then if pantries did not have space, we would try to set them up with a local community garden to get fresh grown food. At first I felt that the goals in the project were too broad and my supervisor did not have a logical plan of execution. I consulted with Professor Paula Gardner about how I could use tolls from our Community Health Interventions (COMHE 302/303) class to help organize the project. Gardner suggested formally planning a mission, goals, and objectives. After consulting with Professor Gardner, I suggested to me that we orientate our goals and try to achieve each of them with carefully planned out strategies: first by assessing the needs of the neighborhood, and then collecting data from the food pantries to estimate the amount produce the gardens can supply to the pantries, along with their willingness to comply with our project. We decided to focus only on food pantries that may be interested in building a sustainable food system. The project was largely unsuccessful, and the data collected was to be stored and revisited when there was more time in the office.
Evaluation of Prison Horticulture Therapy Curriculum
The Horticulural Society of New York provided a horticultural therapy curriculum to correctional facilities around the country, and my responsibility was to locate the agricultural supervisor of each facility to conduct evaluations of our curriculum. The goals were to: (1) deliver a survey over the phone or by mail regarding their attitudes toward our curriculum (2) to gather information about their horticultural therapy programs, and (3) to introduce ours if they did not have one. These evaluations were key to understanding the state of prison horticulture around the country, and also feedback for our own curriculum which is used on Riker’s Island.
I was very successful in locating prison wardens and supervisors through complex prison phone systems. The information gathered was invaluable to our development department and feedback was used in a grant proposal to allocate more money from our sponsors. From this task I learned how to be “smooth” and professional on the phone while gathering important information from hard to reach people.
Evaluation of Green Team
Starting in the spring, I accompanied my supervisor John to several gardening sites around the five boroughs and upstate New York. These were gardens that HSNY had contracts with to do landscaping and agricultural work. During these site visits my duties were to take photographs and conduct qualitative surveys with members of the Green Team as apart of evaluation. The Green Team workers were from a vocational training program run by HSNY on Riker’s Island. Members were primarily African American, and had recently been released from prison. The goal of the evaluations was to determine their knowledge of plants, and their attitudes toward Horticulture. The information gathered would be used in grant proposals and shows the efficacy of our vocational training program. It was extremely difficult to engage the Green Team because they did not want to divulge any personal information to someone they did not know. It became quiet obvious that I was not considered “one of them” and therefore I did not have their respect. I later earned their respect by working side by side with them and finding commonalities between us and identify common cultural values. Eventually, they were glad to tell me about themselves and happy to have their portrait taken. Through this experience I learned to be aware the differences in culture and learned how to be culturally competent and making deeper connections with people.
Horticultural Activities at St. Vincent’s
The rest of the growing season was spent in St. Vincent’s hospital garden in Greenwich Village planning, planting, growing, and learning sustainable organic farming practices. As the season ended I had completed more than my hourly requirements for fieldwork. I grew a passion for horticulture and the connection between humans and plants. A few months later I asked to continue volunteering my time at gardens. To my surprise, one of the gardens, St. Vincent’s on 7th Avenue in Manhattan, had lost participants, and I was offered the position of manager of the garden for the growing season of 2011. I oversaw activities and programs conducted within the garden. Planning the layout and structure of the garden became difficult as previous volunteers of the space began to connect with me and wanted to implement their own vision of the space. Logistics of water supply, tools, task, funding and labor were a great feat to organize, and I later began to work with three new interns from HSNY that would help coordinate volunteers for the space.
The three volunteer coordinators were assigned to the garden and helped me organize educational workshops in the garden, in order to build on HSNY’s mission to sustain the vital connection between people and plants. The educational workshops were targeted toward the local elementary school P.S. 41. The boy and girls were first and second graders, primarily white non-Hispanic from more affluent families in Greenwich Village. The coordinators and I wanted our lessons to fulfill HSNY’s mission to sustain the vital connection between people and plants. A lesson on companion planting was gathered from HSNY’s tool-kits and was delivered by the coordinators and I to 125 students. The companion planting lesson was chosen because it was focused on the dynamic of plants functioning together to increase crop yield. In this case Marigolds were interwoven into plant beds for pest management properties. The students received the information very well, and were able to understand the basics of an ecosystem.
Partnering to Acquire Funding
Funding for supplies and the allocation of steady volunteers were two main challenges that needed to be addressed. We began to reach out to local businesses to sponsor plots on the outside of the garden in return for tax relief and advertising space. Flyers, letters, and application forms were developed, and I conducted outreach to local businesses we were connected with through compost collection. This outreach was largely unsuccessful due to the timing and the changing of management at the particular businesses that were approached. Some funding was received by providing educational workshops to a local Brownie Troop.
There was no money from HSNY that could be allocated to this garden. I decided that starting a program in the garden would be best for allocating money from any organization that would participate.(re-word, don’t end in “to”). Fortunately I was able to reach out to Howard Josepher, CEO of Exponents drug rehabilitation center. Howard was a guest speaker in Professor Gardner’s Addictions and Dependencies course that spoke about the process of creating his own organization, and the hardships of being an addict. I proposed to run a recreational gardening program for his recovering addicts that would aid in reducing stress and increase self-efficacy(1)Horticultural therapy, or therapeutic gardening has been a long studied field, and studies have shown that these programs help individuals relieve stress, and promote self-efficacy (1,2,3).Stress and self-efficacy were key factors, according to Howard, to combat addictions. In our COMHE Interventions class we learned that according to the health belief model, perceived efficacy is central to behavior change. I’ve observed the positive results from members of the Green Team, and how horticultural work increased their self-efficacy and reduced stress and was eager to pioneer a program with recovering addicts.
Howard was intrigued by my ideas, and also had a passion for gardening. With Howard’s permission I began to assess the needs of the group, planned outreach methods, and created a budget for the season. Flyers were created to announce a meeting day to introduce the new program, and outreach was performed to twenty members of the Recovering Annex. The outreach was well received, and each member left with a gift of a potted herb. Eight people eventually signed up for the program, and soon spring would arrive and work would begin.
Working with Recovering Addicts from Exponents
Participants from Exponents would spend two hours in the garden every week on either Wednesdays or Fridays working on various tasks, including weeding, planting, watering or just sitting. Throughout the duration of the program the number of participants fluctuated and eventually participation was sparse and dropped down to about 2 to 4 participants a week. A few volunteers that I managed who were not a part of the program, also worked in the garden with me, and informed me that the work I was giving was either too hard, or did not have any relevancy to the participants. I consulted with a volunteer Horticultural Therapist and Social Worker, Ashley Cruz, on how to better understand and communicate with the participants. We decided to have looser goals and to give more positive reinforcement to each of the participants to raise their self-efficacy.
The attendance of the participants began to drop as the weather got hotter. Ashley and I decided to do bi monthly indoor workshops at Exponents Drug Rehabilitation Center to reach out to more members, and to also spark a continuing interest in ones who were already coming. The workshops were geared toward using garden herbs in practical home settings. Participation increased, but only for one or two weeks.
Further problems arose when Exponents Drug Rehabilitation Center did not deliver on the budget that was agreed upon. This led to out of pocket spending from myself, and slowed down the process of allocating new gardening tools. Exponents did however reimburse me for most of the equipment, but was not able to give me funds up front, rather it was done after I had purchased the supplies. I am still currently trying to get reimbursed for money spent.
Eventually, participation in the pilot program dropped, and only the supervisor of the group would come to garden. I consulted with many participants from the Recovering Annex to understand how I could re-structure the program to suit them better. All participants were happy to be at the garden, and enjoyed the workshops but I learned that Exponents had scheduled my program during the time that they would receive a free lunch. The participants were also only given two free rides on a MetroCard to go from their home to the center; they would have to pay to come to the garden. I also learned that the last Friday of each month was when many of the participants received aid checks, and had to go pick them up during the time of my program. Although I had consulted with the supervisors over the course of the season, they assured me that everyone “liked” what I was doing, and didn’t know why there was a lack of attendance. The project ended at the end of the summer season due to lack of participation, and my inability to run it during the school semester. A few of the participants left with new knowledge of plants, and ecosystems. I was unable to conduct a further evaluation of the program, and was not able to asses any stress reduction. However, I observed many participants become prideful in their gardening work, and ecstatic about the crop they grew.
Finally, classes, logic models, intervention methods, program planning and belief systems built a basis from which I could execute my ideas. However, from working in the field I see that logistics is only a small part of the process. It was naïve of me to think that my ideas and logical planning of execution would result in a successful program. It is in fact several social factors and dynamics that have to be considered. The days that I spent with participants enlightened me on how to reach an audience, how to present non-judgmental critiques, how health is perceived and a greater understanding of how others experience the world. I grew immensely from these experiences. These projects have taught me how to compassionately listen to people, receive their thoughts, and become more reflexive. I plan to listen more to what the needs of a population are and create programs that cater to the needs in a relevant manner.
In the future, I wish to continue to work with socio-economically disadvantaged communities to create culturally competent health education programs that serve the community. I believe that access to knowledge is fundamental in understanding health and it is my goal to provide this access to knowledge. To realize this goal, I plan to create culturally competent health education programs, provide access to demographically relevant health information to disadvantaged communities, and to show people that optimal health is not something which requires money or inaccessible resources. Horticultural-based nutrition programs are one means of implementing these goals. From my experiences, I know that teaching fundamentals of biology of physiology will not reach such audiences effectively. I will explore methods of empathizing, find the bridge to communication, and show communities the relevancy of health to their lives
- Hoffman A.J., Knight L.F.M., Wallach J. Gardening activities, education, and self-esteem: Learning outside the classroom (2007) Urban Education, 42 (5), pp. 403-411.
- Rodiek, S (2002). Influence of an Outdoor Garden on Mood and Stress in Older Persons. Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture, Volume XIII, 13-21
- Van Den Berg A.E., Custers M.H.G. Gardening promotes neuroendocrine and affective restoration from stress(2011) Journal of Health Psychology, 16 (1), pp. 3-11.