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Growing to meet goals

A gardening program for developmentally disabled adults grows from a tiny seedling to a reliable evergreen whose two dozen students spread beauty.

Published March 26, 2007

[Times photo: Joseph Garnett Jr.]
Mark Canterbury, who loves to garden, pulls weeds from a bed of aloe in his small plot, Mark's Corner, behind Tarpon Springs' community center. The garden center is open to the public from 9 a.m. to noon Tuesdays and Thursdays.

TARPON SPRINGS - Mark Canterbury, 45, of Safety Harbor loves to garden. For the past five years, his mother has dropped him off at a garden center where he has his own small plot designated "Mark's Corner." The garden center is operated by Gro Group, a program for developmentally disabled adults. Gro stands for Growth, Responsibility and Opportunity, and the group is funded by a grant from the Florida Department of Education and is free to the students. It has been around under various names since 1987 and operates with the support of Tarpon Springs.

When teacher Paula Littlefield-Navas came on board in 1991, it was a fledgling operation.

"We had a few students and a dozen plants in the back of a colleague's station wagon," Littlefield-Navas said. "We drove from site to site installing plants around Tarpon Springs."

The program has blossomed under Littlefield-Navas' guidance. Gro Group now has 25 students, ages 21 to 61, from throughout Pinellas County, and there is a waiting list to enroll.

Littlefield-Navas and her assistant, Claire Lachance, run Gro Group with the help of volunteers. Five days a week, students meet to learn life and work skills with an emphasis on horticulture. In addition to the garden center, the Gro Group does other beautification projects around the city, such as picking up trash on the Pinellas Trail, maintaining butterfly stations and placing poinsettias around the bayou for the Epiphany celebration.

Five years ago, Tarpon Springs purchased several lots behind the community center at the corner of Walton Avenue and Lime Street. The city donated the land to Gro Group for the garden center, which has a covered workstation with tables that can accommodate wheelchairs, three sheds, and electrical access for a microwave oven and small refrigerator.

One of the sheds contains useful items for outdoor crafts and gardening: aprons, gloves, spray bottles, plastic jugs and stacks of plant pots. The center is surrounded by chain-link fence. Future plans include a greenhouse.

"It's an outdoor classroom," Littlefield-Navas said. "Our curriculum includes functional skills and vocational training, as well as providing a service to the community."

The garden center is open to the public from 9 a.m. until noon Tuesdays and Thursdays. Moderately priced drought- and salt-tolerant plants are available for purchase. Gro Group students maintain the garden center, weeding, watering, and transplanting shrubs and woody ornamental plants.

Juan Cruz, director of public services for Tarpon Springs, has been a proponent of the program since its inception. The parks department regularly checks the garden center to see if there is anything it can use, he said.

"It's been a very good marriage," Cruz said. "The city benefits and it's a worthy cause."

The successful partnership was recognized in 2002 when Tarpon Springs received the International City/County Management Association Program Excellence Award for programs for the disadvantaged for its support of Gro Group.

Gro Group also participates in the annual Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce Art Festival.

For the past 15 years, Gro Group has operated a booth at the festival where it sells student-made items for fundraising. This year students created hand-colored stationery and miniature soap bars to sell at the festival, which is Saturday and Sunday at Craig Park.

Gro Group is one of three life skills programs the Pinellas County School District offers for developmentally disabled adults, said Laura Sargent, supervisor of adult community and work force education.

"Right now, we're serving about 350 individuals" with disabilities, she said.

Sargent oversees the screening process for Gro Group. Applicants, accepted from throughout the county, must have a designated level of self-sufficiency and a parent or guardian who can provide transportation.

Individual job skills, education plans and personal benchmarks are outlined. Parents meet regularly with teachers to review progress. Students can stay enrolled in the program the amount of time needed to reach designated goals. "It's a standout program," Sargent said.

On Thursday morning Mark Canterbury gave a visitor a tour of the garden center, stopping at the potting bench, compost pile and birdbath. He proudly pointed out "Mark's Corner," his plot that contains amaryllis, canna lily and spider lily bulbs.

"This is a very special place," Canterbury said, holding his arms out wide. "This is where I belong."

[Last modified March 26, 2007, 07:46:55]

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