Opportunities to show one’s appreciation can be as simple as sending a heartfelt thank you card, or it can be a knock on the door with a gift that keeps on growing year after year. For Bill Lincoln of Uncasville, Connecticut, gratitude came with an offer to create a community vegetable garden at Fairview Odd Fellows Home in the town of Groton, overlooking the Thames River and Gold Star Memorial Bridge that leads to the port city of New London across the way.
“Our family was so grateful to the staff at Fairview,” explains Bill, “for the loving care they gave my wife’s mother, Phyllis O’Rourke, during the three years she lived there. This was especially apparent as her life was coming to a close last April when we were gathered by her bedside day and night during that week she died. Everyone from the administrator to custodian stopped by to say their good-byes and sat with us, sharing stories and memories. It was so comforting, not only for the care and attention they gave my mother-in-law, but the genuine kindness for our family, bringing us coffee, food and providing a shoulder to lean on.
"Sally and I were so touched; we wanted to do something special to show our appreciation, like writing a nice check, but financially, we weren’t able to do that at the time. The idea of planting a garden came to me one morning the following week when outside feeding my Belgian, Charlie. We were about to start some springtime chores, plowing some additional rows of ground to put in some new tomato plants, when a light bulb lit up in my brain.”
Bill couldn’t wait to tell Sally. By lunchtime, a page filled with notes was on the kitchen table as the couple called Fairview’s recreational therapy director, Tomi Stanley, setting up an appointment to come by with a gift.
Tomi remembers Bill running up the steps the following day, “Like a child at Christmas, he literally skipped into the office with such glee, pointing to the window and asking what I thought about a community garden for the residents and staff. He explained his idea, pointing to the large span of open ground that was perfect with plenty of sun exposure for growing vegetables and herbs. After walking the area, I was completely captivated with the idea, knowing a garden would provide an abundance of food, but also a way to engage our residents in a variety of activities, such as get-togethers to discuss gardens they’ve had in the past, favorite plants and garden tips, what to plant now, exchanging recipes and serving ideas. It was exciting just thinking about the possibilities.”
But, this was obviously something for the administration to review and decide, so Bill and Tomi typed up a proposal and kept their fingers crossed that they’d get the green light to proceed. It didn’t take long for Fairview’s administrator, James Rosenman, to set up a meeting to discuss the plan. Right from the start, he and the board of directors, liked the idea. However, they did need to go over the logistics of how the garden would be dug, planted and maintained.
Bill was ready with the answers. He was familiar with community gardens from past work experience on the staff at Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center in Montville where prisoners produce an average of 12,000 pounds of vegetables each year at the facility’s garden, including squash, zucchini, cucumbers, beans, cabbage, pumpkins and tomatoes. Half of that harvest goes to the prison kitchen, feeding the inmates and staff, with the other 6,000 pounds donated annually to local food pantries in the towns of Montville and Norwich. Herbs grown in the garden are used for food preparation and also as a teaching tool in the prison’s culinary arts classes. The project offsets food costs by approximately $6,000 a year, plus the facility also raises chickens for a supply of fresh eggs for meals and sandwich sales.
Besides tending to the garden at the facility, selected inmates volunteer their services in the community helping others harvest their crops. One neighbor, 88-year old John “Whit” Davis isn’t able to work the land anymore, but his mind is sharp and the inmates agree that it’s an honor to learn new skills from one of the legends of farming in the area.
With pickaxes and pitchforks, six inmates associated with a program called Community Solutions Inc., set to work on the Davis farm one Thursday morning, harvesting three varieties of potatoes, amounting to a whopping 1,000 pounds loaded onto a pickup truck. Most of the produce was donated to the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center, and the rest shared with Davis’ friends, family and the inmates.
The men also participate in helping to remove seaweed washed up on the shore and rocks in the area. The sea vegetation, high in mineral content, is hauled back to Montville to be used as compost in the prison’s three gardens, totaling an acre in size. This project is part of many volunteer activities that the inmates help with each week in various towns in the area. They’re handpicked based on good behavior and the seriousness of their crimes.
Being outdoors, working the land and giving back to the community are positive approaches to rehabilitation that offer new skills and build self-esteem for the inmates. While on staff at the prison, Bill was impressed with the program and how much the men enjoyed being part of the team. Perhaps the garden coordinator, Bill wondered, might like to participate at Fairview.
His request was met favorably, along with others in the area who wanted to help. After a few telephone calls, a team of enthusiastic volunteers were ready to get the project started, including good friend and horse trainer, Dave Bradham; Patrick Kelley with the Eastern Connecticut Community Garden Association; volunteers at the Connecticut Draft Horse Rescue located in the town of Haddam; and some able horses happy to be out in the field working. Two teams were set to go: Charlie, belonging to Bill, and Big Nick, a Belgian from the rescue organization, and Ruby and April, Suffolk-crosses, both retired logging horses on loan to Corrigan Correctional Center from Blue Star Equiculture, a draft horse sanctuary and organic farm in Palmer, Massachusetts.
The day for plowing was set for June 14, 2012. Little did Bill know, but the project had turned into a big event with great fanfare and excitement. A jovial crowd of residents and staff lined up with lawn chairs along the garden plot measuring 60 x 100 feet, waving to the horses and volunteers. Local dignitaries showed up, including Andrew Maynard, State Senator; Elisa Wright, State Representative; and Groton City Mayor, John Waller. In fact, Senator Maynard rolled up his sleeves and asked if he could try his hand at plowing.
It was definitely a festive atmosphere that brought such joy to Bill and Sally, remembering Phyllis and the reason for the project. When the plowing was just about completed, Bill noticed an elderly man, a resident at Fairview, walking his way. He was smiling from ear-to-ear with a gleam in his eye. Politely, he tapped Bill on the shoulder, asking if he could give it a try. It seems the gentleman farmed long ago with draft horses for many years, and he just wanted to be close to these amazing animals again.
Bill checked with the staff, getting a thumbs-up, so he accompanied the man over to the plow. There was no need to worry; Henry was in his element, striding along as if he was 40 again working the fields at home. The crowd cheered, showering their friend with hoots and hollers as he returned their waves with an even bigger smile than before. Others came up to Bill, thanking him and sharing their own stories with draft horses on the farm. The entire afternoon was filled with great emotion, lots of reminiscing and excitement about things to come.
There was still plenty of work to do, including removing a scattering of rocks in the soil, unloading a big truckload of seasoned cow and horse manure–a gift from Dave Bradham’s mother–and installing a fence and a crushed gravel pathway around the perimeter of the garden. The prison delivered over 50 tomato plants, Patrick returned with a pallet of plants donated from the community garden association and volunteers dropped a wonderful array of donated vegetable plants and tomato stakes from local nurseries.
It took Bill and Sally three days in the 90-degree sweltering heat to get all the plants into the ground. Maintenance duties with watering, pruning and harvesting are done by Fairview’s team of volunteers and recreation department. Many of the residents enjoy helping with sorting the vegetables, gathering herbs, snapping beans and thinking up tasty ways of serving the bumper crop of fresh produce at mealtime. They’re also delighted to be ambassadors of the garden, taking visitors on a tour of the grounds and reporting on the latest crop.
Like seeds sprouting in the sunshine, this community garden has blossomed into a meaningful part of life through the seasons for the residents, staff, volunteers, family and friends at Fairview. Tomi Stanley was right when she imagined all the activities that would evolve from the project. Besides discussion groups about gardening, recipes and interesting ways to serve up veggies, the residents have incorporated their passion for the garden through their art and photography, painting lovely scenes and taking snapshots that are displayed throughout the building. This past winter has been a whirlwind of activity, pouring through seed catalogs and planning the next season of crops. Thanks to the garden, there’s always something to do and enjoy!
Bill is still involved with Fairview, returning many times during the year with Charlie and Dave Bradham’s black Percheron, Guinness. “We built a handicapped-accessible wagon that we take to many events and facilities in the state, including the fall festival at Fairview," says Bill. "The wagon is equipped with a lift for wheelchairs, so folks can enjoy a pleasant ride no matter what physical challenges they might have. We’ve got plans to build another wagon this year.
"It’s especially fun sharing stories and history of draft horses. My own experience is fairly new in the last few years. I never had been around the bigger breeds before adopting Charlie, a retired pulling horse. My wife is the one with equine experience, growing up with lighter breeds and riding like a pro. I was always in awe of the draft horses working the fields at the prison, so when Sally mentioned an ad about a sweet-natured draft, my ears perked up.”
Charlie has been the perfect horse for a newcomer to the draft horse world. He’s mellow, very friendly, extremely intelligent and knows what to do in all situations. Bill explains that Charlie retired from pulling at 17 years of age. His previous owner, Mark Cherenzia, from Ashaway, Rhode Island, realized it wasn’t fun for Charlie anymore, so he placed him up for adoption at a local horse rescue where he could interview prospective new owners, making sure his good buddy would have a safe and happy home with lots of interaction, but no more competing in pulling contests.
It was a match made in heaven when Bill and Charlie met. Instantly, there was a rapport and sense of belonging for one another, which pleased Mark considerably. He took extra time in explaining everything about Charlie, includingpersonality traits and favorite treats. He also showed Bill the ropes with harnessing and working with draft horses, and gave him names of other teamsters in the area to help him hone his skills.
No need to worry as Mark waved good-bye. He could tell his horse was bound for greener pastures with lots of love, attention and activities that would keep him motivated and happy. For Bill, the adventure has been exhilarating, sharing his own retirement days with Charlie. Together they work the fields at home, travel the state providing wagon rides and savor the moments when they go wandering through the countryside with Bill on horseback and a sack lunch in the saddlebag.
Bills laughs and understands why the nickname, “Comfy Couch,” makes such sense. “Charlie is so easy and comfortable to ride," he admits. "He doesn’t care if you haven’t got a lot of experience or technique; he knows what to do and gets you safely through the meadows, fields and country roads. It’s an adventure that I love more than anything–just the two of us enjoying the day.
"I know others like to brag about their special horse, the same way folks show off photos of their kids and grandchildren, but for me being so new to the world of draft horses, it’s so easy chiming in about Charlie. He’s so funny and good-natured with everyone, including the family cats. It’s a hoot watching such a large animal weighing 1,900 pounds, let a purring ball of fur nuzzle him with such affection. It’s also hilarious watching Charlie diligently reach with curled lips for a single blade of grass through the fence. I’ve got to get the camera and snap these shots for sure!”
Learning and mastering his craft is something Bill believes in wholeheartedly, so every month is filled with driving lessons and visiting with seasoned teamsters, soaking up knowledge and experience. He recently heard from Mark that Charlie’s previous pulling partner, Don, is about to retire. One can only imagine what’s mulling over in Bill’s mind, thinking how great it would be bringing the duo back together again, especially with that second wagon on the drawing board. Surely he can convince Sally there’s plenty of room in the barn and definitely more community gardens to plow.