By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — About two months ago, Nova Quinn and Emily Meehan, employees of Family Service of Rhode Island, began kicking around the idea of getting their kids some fresh air. One of the many services provided by the local nonprofit is early intervention in-home care for young children with special needs, who receive specialized services such as speech and occupational therapy.
Quinn, a speech pathologist, and Meehan, a special educator, couldn’t think of a more practical way to get kids engaged in communication and movement than taking them to a farm. Meehan is neighbors with an employee of the Southside Community Land Trust (SCLT), a well-established urban farming group. Meehan and her neighbor had a conversation over the fence separating their backyards. By the beginning of July, both nonprofits were ready to introduce the children to City Farm.
“Whether we meet at a child’s home or at City Farm, the speech goals are the same,” said Quinn, who works on expanding vocabulary with her young clients by practicing language basics. “Meeting at City Farm provides the kids with a natural setting to practice communicating while also interacting with the community, learning about healthy eating habits and seeing how food is grown.”
On the morning of July 24, the group of four participating families met at City Farm for the third of four visits. All family members are welcome to attend; in some cases, toddling clients are accompanied by their mother, father and siblings. Over the course of the next hour, the kids and their families participated in a range of engaging activities led by Dana Wolfson, the children’s garden coordinator at City Farm.
A scavenger hunt had them picking and tasting flaxseeds, learning about compost, and checking out the urban farm’s chicken coop. They learned to plant sunflower seeds, an exercise that included filling a pot with soil, adding some water, placing the seed in and watering it. Then, at the frenetic pace that only children can set, they were on to the cooking portion of the program, during which the kids made seed snacks by mixing pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and peanut butter into balls and then coating them with coconut flakes.
During each activity, Quinn and Meehan were close at hand to sneak in lessons on their unsuspecting clients. “Let’s keep the coconut on the plate … on,” pleaded Quinn to 3-year-old Lavender, who seemed to prefer the coconut to be off the plate.
“The program is exciting,” said Wolfson in a rare moment where she had time to come up for air. “Because all of the kids have different (speech) goals to work towards, the process is much more collaborative (between me and the Family Services of Rhode Island staff) compared to other school groups that visit.”
In addition to the speech practice and learning opportunities afforded to the children by the farm outings, the program also has had a meaningful effect on many of their parents.
Betty Vizcaino, the mother of a Family Service of Rhode Island client, said the program has been a great experience. Vizcaino is originally from Barranquilla, Colombia, where she owned a farm. She now lives in Central Falls, where she can only garden in a few pots. The visits to City Farm, she said, have allowed her to share something culturally important to her with her child and others.
“I like that the kids planted beans last week, and got to see them sprouting up this week,” Vizcaino said.
Mandy Cilam is another parent excited about the program. “I am from rural North Carolina, so everything was just farms,” said Cilam in an accent that confirmed her southern roots. “Finding out about City Farm has really changed my thoughts on Providence.”
It also has changed her daughter’s thoughts on lettuce. “It is always hard to get Elayna to eat vegetables, but (during the session) two weeks ago, (Wolfson and the children) cut some lettuce for a salad and Elayna scarfed it down without a problem.”
Cilam said she now includes Elayna when she prepares meals so that Elayna can see where their food comes from.
The collaboration between Family Service of Rhode Island and City Farm has allowed each organization to provide the community with services that would have been difficult to achieve individually. City Farm is interacting with the community in a positive way, while Family Service of Rhode Island is providing an engaging experience to its clients and their families.
“A lot of these kids live in tough neighborhoods,” said Quinn, who normally visits her clients in their homes. “They don’t always have the opportunity to run around in a field with a chicken coop or see food in the place where it is grown. To them, food comes from the supermarket, so it’s fun to see how excited and nervous the kids get when Dana spontaneously rips off part of a plant and suggests they pop it in their mouths.”
As last month’s session wrapped up, the children exited the farm gate with their families in tow. Each child held a small pot containing their newly planted sunflower seed that with a little care and nurturing will transform into a strong and wonderful flower.