Tallmadge: The sight of a tankful of tilapia gobbling the food he’d given them made Scott Geistweite smile.
Every day, the Akron resident checks and feeds the fish in an aquaponics system at Bridges, a vocational center for adults with developmental disabilities. In the seven months he’s been helping to maintain the food-growing system, Geistweite’s verbal skills have skyrocketed, said Laura Gerlich, Bridges’ director.
It’s just one of the unintended benefits that have been reaped along with the beans and salad greens since Bridges started getting its clients involved in gardening.
Bridges is operated by Ardmore Inc., an agency that serves developmentally disabled people in Summit County. The center provides recreation, continuing education and vocational training, and recently it’s added gardens, an aquaponics system and chickens to the mix.
The food-production focus resulted, at least in part, from serendipity.
Bridges is housed in the former Tallmadge Christian Academy. Ardmore bought the property last year with the intention of using its 10 acres for gardening. When it hired construction company F.G. Ayers Inc. to renovate the building’s interior, the project got an extra boost.
As it turns out, Ayers’ president and office manager, Lance and Cheryl Schmidt, are sustainability advocates and principals of the NEOHaus Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes green building and environmentally sensitive living. They started brainstorming food-raising ideas with Ardmore leaders and have continued to offer advice and other support for the gardening program.
“I don’t know if they really knew what they were getting themselves into,” Cheryl Schmidt said with a laugh.
The Schmidts suggested the aquaponics system, a setup that combines hydroponic gardening and raising fish in a mutually beneficial arrangement. Water from a fish tank in the Bridges lobby circulates through a growing bed atop an old brick planter, where plants grow under lights in a soilless medium. Fish waste in the water supplies nutrients that fertilize the plants, and in turn, the plants and the pebbles they grow in clean the water before it’s returned to the tank.
The system was installed in late December and has been “very engaging” for the clients, who are often eager to show visitors what they’ve grown, Cheryl Schmidt said.
One of those whose attention it captured was Geistweite, who has autism. The sound of water trickling into the tank calms him, Gerlich explained, and the job of monitoring and feeding the fish has developed his sense of responsibility.
The aquaponics system is growing crops chosen by the Bridges participants — jalapeno peppers, chives, carrots, spinach and several types of lettuce. A salad they made from the first lettuce harvest was gone in minutes, Gerlich said.
The center also put in a corn patch, three small raised beds for tomatoes and herbs, and a bigger vegetable garden that’s producing an assortment of edibles, including beans, radishes, lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini, squash and Swiss chard. And in March, Bridges welcomed 10 Golden Comet chicks, which have since grown into hens and have become a source of entertainment as well as eggs.
Many of the clients love holding the gentle birds, and some have even taught them to jump for treats of lettuce. The Bridges participants think of the chickens more as pets than as farm animals, which makes Becky Lemasters, the agency’s executive director, glad they’re being raised just for eggs instead of meat.
When the first egg was laid about a month ago, all the clients wanted to watch. “I felt sorry for the poor chicken,” Lemasters said with a smile.
In addition to the Schmidts, Bridges got help from employees of Keller Williams Realty, which spent a day in May doing such chores as helping to plant and fixing up a shed that’s being converted to a chicken coop. The Henry Bierce Co. donated seeds.
Now participants who choose to work in the gardens are learning to care for the plants, skills they might be able to turn into jobs someday.
Client Romalle DeShawn Green of Akron walked carefully between the rows of bean plants as he searched for weeds to pull. “I learned it’s a lot of responsibility,” he said. It’s important not to trample the plants, he explained, “and you gotta water them real good.”
His fellow gardener, Chris Benedum of Barberton, said he’d done a little gardening at home with his mother, but nothing so extensive.
Benedum wasn’t as eager to taste the fruits of his labor as some of his fellow Bridges participants, but he said he’d probably try some of the crops.
“I’m not a big vegetable fan,” he admitted, “but maybe I’ll get used to it.”
The project has proved therapeutic for the participants, many of whom have autism. The deep pressure involved in the pushing and pulling motions of gardening is calming, Gerlich explained, and the outdoor work and repetitive motions are also beneficial. Those with attention deficit disorder can often focus better in the garden than they can indoors, she said.
The work helps relax them, enhancing their capacity for learning and giving leaders an opportunity to model appropriate behavior and interaction in a nonthreatening environment, Gerlich said. Many of the participants find it easier to converse with others when part of the brain is engaged with gardening tasks, she explained.
Besides, gardening is just fun. “Our folks are so eager and interested in it,” Lemasters said.
For now, the program is an experiment, “our ‘let’s get our feet wet and see if we could do it’ year,” Gerlich said. Bridges hopes eventually to develop the program into a bigger vocational venture, perhaps growing crops to sell at farmers markets, supplying food to Ardmore’s group homes and making green cleaning supplies for the agency.
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also become a fan on Facebook, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.