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Nurturing healing

President’s Award for Public Engagement honours Phoenix Garden

By Andreae Callanan

What happens when a flower blooms inside the walls of a penitentiary?

Three men are observing a sunflower.
Participants in the Phoenix Garden Project are learning to observe the world with a gardener’s eye.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

The Phoenix Garden Project is the recipient of this year’s President’s Award for Public Engagement Partnerships — Memorial’s highest recognition for collaborations between the university and the community.

The project connects “outside gardeners” from Memorial University with selected “inside gardeners”: men who are currently incarcerated at His Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP) in St. John’s.

Enjoying the beauty

In the short two years since the project began, participants have forged connections with one another and with the community.

They have also been prompted to observe their environment with a gardener’s eye.

One of the first activities shared by garden participants was to observe an amaryllis bulb as it grew from a green stalk into a scarlet flower.

The project’s facilitators say that a blooming amaryllis is a perfect metaphor for what they want their impact to be.

The Memorial University Botanical Garden’s Tim Walsh is one of the project’s outside gardeners.

“The guys had an opportunity to bring that plant around from room to room and … just enjoy the beauty.” — Tim Walsh

He says that, inside HMP’s walls, delicate things like flowers don’t tend to last long in common areas.

“But, the guys had an opportunity to bring that plant around from room to room and … just enjoy the beauty.”

Mr. Walsh and the other outside gardeners speak about “the guys” as though they are any group of friends they might meet up with for a chat.

But this relationship hasn’t happened by chance.

Volunteers like Mr. Walsh and Dr. Jan Buley of Memorial’s Faculty of Education, along with past and present facilitators David Buley, Kristina Szutor, Jill Allison, Forrest Tanner, Krista Phelan, Tasha Roberts, Niyati Singh, Kathryn Lear, Rochelle Baker and Susan Green, have worked with the John Howard Society of N.L. and staff at HMP to create a space for inmates to spend time getting their hands in the soil.

Listen to a recording below that Mr. Buley made of two of the inside gardener participants sharing what the Phoenix Garden Project means to them.


A collaborative effort

Typically, eight to 10 inside gardener participants meet each Monday.

When COVID-19 restrictions made face-to-face meetings difficult, the group managed to keep in contact through weekly letters and activities.

HMP staff and administration worked hard under challenging staffing circumstances to support the garden project as much as possible; the volunteers recognize this effort and are grateful for the help.

“We’re trying to help the guys bloom a bit more,” Mr. Walsh said. “We’re giving them the tools that they need to build themselves up and to grow something beautiful.”

A man in a grey sweatsuit holds several tomatoes in one hand and two small plant pots in the other. He is looking into the camera. Other people are around him, involved in their own conversations. They are inside a greenhouse with wooden beams.
The greenhouse has been a valuable addition to the garden.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

The tools are plentiful and varied.

A comprehensive nine-module curriculum, titled Putting Down Roots, offers the gardeners essential horticultural knowledge and gives them valuable work skills for when they return to their communities.

So far, approximately 150 inside gardener participants have experienced the gardening program. Many are eagerly working towards completing the modules and receiving certification.

Gardening equipment and materials have been provided through partnerships with local businesses Sun Valley Greenhouses and Rise’n’ Shine Nurseries.

A 16-foot cedar greenhouse from Sun Valley was built this past summer on the HMP grounds.

The greenhouse gives the participants new growing space and a longer growing season.

It can also be dismantled and moved when HMP is replaced with a new facility in 2024.

Healing ritual

Funds from a $25,000 award from the Canada Healthy Communities Initiative will be used to establish a meditation garden as part of the project — a much-needed space for inmates to reflect, observe and be in the moment.

Meditation and reflection may be the most important tools to come from the garden’s programming.

The outside gardeners have responded as deeply to the project’s mindfulness programming as the participants living on the inside.

“Rituals can help us work through lots of difficult emotions.” — Kathryn Lear

Kathryn Lear, a staff member at Memorial’s Internationalization Office, says she feels “just as lucky, if not luckier,” than the inmates selected to be part of the program.

For Ms. Lear, gardening is a ritual.

“And, as we know, rituals can help us work through lots of difficult emotions.”

Memorial student Niyati Singh emphasizes the mutual benefit of the Phoenix Garden Project.

“It’s not that we go for them. No, it’s equal for both inside and outside gardeners.”

When Ms. Singh visits HMP, she says she feels herself fill up with energy — something she gets from the guys.

“It’s not mine … to put it in literal words: you touch soil, which touches your soul,” she said.

Ten people stand in a row in front of a greenhouse. The people are smiling at the camera.
Just some of the Phoenix Garden Project participants outside the greenhouse on the pentitentiary’s grounds.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Keeping connections alive

For Cindy Murphy, executive director of the John Howard Society, the Phoenix Garden Project works so well because it recognizes, at every step, the inside gardeners’ humanity.

“These are folks, yes, who have contravened some of society’s norms, and that’s landed them in incarceration,” Ms. Murphy said. “But, they’re still human beings who are connected to us and to the community in many ways, and it’s important to keep that connection and that humanity alive.”

Connection and humanity come through clearly in the words the inside gardeners write on small pieces of paper at the end of each gardening session.

“I actually got the feeling that someone actually genuinely cares about inmates.” — an inside gardener

These anonymous “noticings,” as they’re called, could be any observation a participant — inside or outside — wishes to share.

On one piece of paper, an inside gardener wrote:

“This group has given me something rarely felt inside these walls, I actually got the feeling that someone actually genuinely cares about inmates.”

Another “noticing” reads: “I noticed this beautiful day and the sun on my back. It’s nice to be outside.”

Ms. Murphy says the Phoenix Garden Project means a lot to “the guys” inside HMP.

“Having volunteers come in and giving their time and sparking hope … to say that [the inmates are] important enough for them to come in and to spend time with them … can help inspire them in their own personal journeys. Good things can happen when the right combination of circumstances come together.”

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