Broward Academy for Special Needs Children student and gardner Shamar Turner, 12, waters papaya trees Tuesday morning at the food gardens at Roth’s New River Groves in Davie. (Taimy Alvarez/Sun Sentinel/TNS)

A garden for special-needs kids grows — and kids mature, too

DAVIE, Fla. — The banana peels come from the pie shop. The carrot pulp comes from the juice bar. Food remnants at Bob Roth’s New River Groves in Davie do not go in the garbage. They head for compost containers out back, 5-gallon paint buckets where scraps are turned into gardening gold by students with autism and other developmental disabilities.

The vegetable and herb gardens that have sprouted the past two years behind the landmark food stand provide a hands-on lesson for kids, teachers and Steven Wain, the volunteer who started the program. They have learned to look beneath the surface, and to understand there is value in things society is quick to discard.

The kids work the land, laying down “lasagna bed” layers of cardboard, peat moss, compost, crushed eggshells and leaves as a foundation for their crops. They use “worm tea” — nutrient-rich liquid waste produced by worms — to grow mangoes, papayas, tomatoes, green beans, sweet potatoes, oregano and mint. They sell the herbs and produce at fundraisers, and also bring some home.

“I just love working with these kids,” says Wain, 73, a longtime friend of Roth who launched Horticultural Therapy at the Grove. The program began with a small group from the Broward Academy School for Special Needs, a private school in Davie. It has expanded to 25 students from four schools, each group’s gardening plot marked with a handmade sign.

Broward Academy student Alyssa Perez, 15, says her grandmother used the oregano she grew in a recent batch of spaghetti sauce and meatballs. “It was good,” Perez says.

The students come for two hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the school year, and sometimes on their own on weekends, to tend the gardens. “I like it here,” Sierra Osinska, 14, says while watering a patch of mint and oregano.

“It’s stress relief. It gives them peace of mind. It helps their behavior,” Broward Academy teacher Jacqueline Valentin says. “The kids get down and dirty with the soil, the eggshells, the worms. … It’s a mess, but it’s beautiful. Just look at all they’ve done.”

Broward Academy director Maria Preston says, “I’ve seen growth, more confidence, more calm. I’ve seen aggression go down to nothing. … They’re able to show leadership and responsibility. They all have a role.”

Wain says each student is different, with some less talkative than others and some more averse to the tactile sensations of dirt and water. But all are eager to learn and perform tasks. Wain, an insurance agent who has known Bob Roth since they went to middle school together in Miami Beach, says working with the students also has been educational for him.

“The first year, there was one student who asked a lot of questions,” Wain recalls. “He said, ‘Mr. Steve, how long does it take for that seed you’re holding to turn into a tomato we can eat?’ I’ve been gardening my whole life, and I didn’t know the answer. I went to a horticultural show that week and asked.”

The next time he saw the student, Wain had an answer: 70 to 90 days.

“These kids teach me every day,” Valentin, their teacher, says. “Courage, strength, the ability to do what everybody else doubts. This garden might not seem like a big deal to others, but for them it’s very special.”

Wain says Roth has been generous with land, money and supplies for the program. “Whatever he needs I give him,” Roth says about Wain. “This has been such a rewarding experience for everyone.”

Bob Roth’s New River Groves, which opened in 1964, is famous for fresh-squeezed orange juice, fudge and Key lime pie, first made by his late wife, Terry, who died of cancer in 2002. The citrus now comes from other parts of the state. As more land behind the food stand went unused, Wain, who lives in Davie, pitched ideas.

First came a meditation garden in memory of Roth’s father, Al, who died at age 104 in February 2015. Al Roth had a 10-acre citrus grove and packing house three miles away, which he closed and sold in 1972. A sign Wain posted at the meditation garden entrance bears an ancient Greek proverb: “A society grows great when old men plant trees [in] whose shade they know they shall never sit.”

In 2015, Roth agreed to the horticulture therapy program. Wain says he learned his love of gardening from his father as a boy in White Plains, N.Y. He recruited students and teachers from the Broward Academy, the Quest Center in Hollywood, Sheridan Technical High in Hollywood and American Preparatory Academy in Davie. Wain has a meeting scheduled with a Broward public schools administrator next week about expanding the program.

“We focus on abilities, not disabilities,” Wain says.

Wain has a grown son with a hearing impairment, so he understands how hard it can be for special-needs students to fit in and thrive. As an insurance agent who has sold life-insurance policies to parents of special-needs children, he also understands how hard it can be for parents who worry about what will happen to their kids after they are gone.

For now, Wain just wants to share his passion for gardening and imbue a sense of responsibility and ownership within the students. Shamar Turner, 12, says he doesn’t like bugs or heat, but he was all smiles as he watered tomatoes and mint with a garden hose that sent stray spray onto his shirt.

“Man, when I was soaking those trees it was so refreshing to those plants and trees,” Turner says. “And to me, too.”

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