Flower power prevails as people with disabilities bring joy to others


| By Jason Golden |

The mandate to change life as we knew it came swiftly as the nation approached the Ides of March and the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. A group of five people with disabilities were heartbroken. They had spent several weeks nurturing life - their beloved spring plants and flowers. Thousands of plants that had been grown with care in their greenhouse were earmarked for sale at major plant shows across the greater Washington, D.C. area and at smaller local farmers markets across the region. With the shutdown, those events were all canceled, and the plants were in jeopardy of dying out.  

The special group of people responsible for growing these plants comprises the Melwood Garden Center Team. Melwood is part of SourceAmerica's nonprofit agency network and is based in Maryland. Melwood's gardening and horticulture program has become popular over the past several years and is a source of pride across the organization. The individuals on this team provide care for the plants - most of which come to Melwood’s greenhouses as small plugs - with gardening skills that include pinching and trimming flowers, removal of faded flowers and watering. When the pandemic hit, the Garden Center Team’s typical spring and summer plans to sell thousands of these flowering and vegetable plants around Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. were dashed. The plants needed to find a home, and quickly. 

A plan formed and a decision was made to donate all of the plants to local organizations. Throughout the months of April and May, thousands of vegetable plants were delivered to area food pantries, while flowering plants were donated to hospitals, group homes and nursing homes.

Another Maryland nonprofit dedicated to providing opportunities for people with disabilities was a surprise recipient of Melwood’s donations. Spring Dell Center’s Executive Director, Donna Retzlaff, needed a solution to help with her own organization’s support for people with disabilities who were trying to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic’s consequences. “As we were struggling with COVID‐19 and the anxiety and fear that came with it, we were desperately trying to help the people we support with developmental disabilities find hope and comfort. We really wanted flowers for everyone to plant so they could enjoy the sunshine and find the joy that flowers bring.”  

It would not be worth the risk to Spring Dell Center’s staff to go out and purchase flowers locally, so they decided that the project would not be able to proceed. As fate would have it, Retzlaff received a call the very next day from Melwood asking if she would like some of the Garden Center Team's flowers. "We are so grateful for the timely call that led to an amazing project that brought smiles to all."

The Garden Center Team relied on volunteers to help distribute the thousands of plants across the region. One of these dedicated individuals was Cynthia Gariepy, who read about the need for additional support in her hometown newspaper. Gariepy was already familiar with the Melwood Garden Center Team, having been a volunteer at the Charles County (Maryland) Master Gardeners which often partners with Melwood. She knew there would be a need to help deliver the plants. "I didn't want to see the plants go to waste. Melwood works very hard to grow and nurture the plants. All the contacts I made, from Melwood, to the two receiving organizations, were professional and courteous. The senior living facility and the high school were both very appreciative of the donations from Melwood and expressed what a wonderful thing they were doing. It was extremely rewarding to be a part of this effort."

In addition to the vegetable plant and flower sales that are usually a rite of spring for the Garden Center Team, Melwood also provides additional horticultural opportunities for people with disabilities through the U.S. AbilityOne® Program. These unique roles include cultivating and providing plants for several AbilityOne contracts including for the U.S. Army at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, and across Washington, D.C. at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's People's Garden on the National Mall.

Melwood is a member of SourceAmerica's network of more than 700 nonprofit agencies. This network employs more than 90,000 people with disabilities nationwide, some of them through the U.S. AbilityOne Program, which is one of the largest sources of employment in the United States for people who are blind or have significant disabilities.

Melwood hopes to continue their flower and plant cultivation for local sales in 2021 and beyond.