Valdosta Daily Times

June 16, 2013

Children help garden, community grow

Dean Poling
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — Elizabeth Redden wanted a garden. She wanted to eat a healthier diet. Confined to a wheelchair, she wants to lose weight, needs to lose weight, but her health problems along with husband Hoyt’s blindness, made starting a garden impossible.

Jane Teasley spent the past school year working as a substitute teacher who also spends her after-school hours working with children in the Boys and Girls Club of Valdosta. She had re-started the Boys & Girls Club’s Garden Club program for youngsters ranging in age from 5 to 12 years old, but Teasley also wanted the children to work in the community. She wanted her young students to see how gardening and fresh foods can help not only the gardener but others.

This is the story of a garden, but it is also the story of how two needs were met in a small backyard in Valdosta. How a physically challenged couple has come to love the weekly visits of nearly two dozen children and how those youngsters have learned a sense of community by, what Jane Teasley calls, “planting it forward.”

It is a story of not only how a garden grows but how friendships and a sense of community can grow.

Striving for Normal

Hoyt and Elizabeth Redden have been married for 35 years. He is blind. She is confined to a wheelchair, fighting several health concerns, including her weight.

Despite everything, the Reddens try living as normal a life as possible. For several years, Hoyt operated the concession room in the Downtown Valdosta federal building. By touch, he knows how to count money, has operated a business and lived as independently as possible.

Hoyt is a quiet man but he knows how to handle himself. Elizabeth says it is frustrating when they go shopping or out to eat and people speak to her instead of him.

“They’ll ask me what he wants to eat,” Elizabeth says. “He’s sitting right there. They need to ask him but it’s like they overlook him. He knows what he wants to order. ... Or he’ll hand them money at the register and they go to hand his change to me.”

“It’s my money,” Hoyt says, with a slight chuckle. “They should hand my money to me.”

 About five years ago, Hoyt left the job at the federal building. Habitat for Humanity helped the couple realize a long-time dream of having a house of their own. For the past four years, they have lived in the Habitat house. Caregivers come to the house to help the Reddens with some daily needs.

Rising weight aggravated Elizabeth’s health concerns. She began dieting and has seen steady results, she says. “This time last year, I was 475 and now I’m down to 414.”

Battling to lose weight, she has turned to healthier foods. She buys vegetables and fruits. Elizabeth wished she could have a backyard garden to grow vegetables for Hoyt’s and her dinner table.

A garden to go with their house and their new lives, but a garden is something they are unable to do alone.

Growing a Generation

Through her work as a Sallas-Mahone Elementary School substitute teacher and her work with the Boys & Girls Club, Jane Teasley had seeded a new garden club for children ages 5 through 12 years old.

Early in the academic year, Teasley led the children in gardening activities at the Boys & Girls Club’s Toombs Street location. They went on a field trip to the Mallory farm on Bemiss Road. She taught them the basics of gardening.

Jane learned gardening from both her maternal and paternal grandparents. She recalls her maternal grandfather growing radishes and squash while her maternal grandmother grew roses. She recalls her paternal grandfather growing basil and mint and him pulling a mint leaf and giving it to her to taste, there, outdoors, fresh from the garden.

Jane drew upon these experiences to not only instruct the children in how to garden but to inspire them to garden. She also hoped to inspire the idea of community involvement and a community garden.

The Seed is Planted

Diane Howard understands the needs of gardens and community. She has worked with Downtown Valdosta’s Farm Days and created lunch-and-learn programs related to gardening and sharing the region’s fresh produce with the community.

She brought Jane Teasley’s garden club and the Reddens together.

“I acquired the task from Mrs. Diane Howard,” Teasley said. “She told me of a lady and her husband who wanted a garden but could not get out and grow their own plants.”

Howard arranged a meeting and, together, she and Teasley met with the Reddens. “I did not know what to expect ...,” Teasley says, “but I wanted to personally meet and visit with the Reddens before we started our work. They are both very personable, God-fearing people who seem to love life a lot, regardless of what special needs they have.”

The Reddens were uncertain what to expect with 20-some children coming to their house on a regular basis.

“Coming up as a child as a person with disabilities, other people could be cruel,” Elizabeth Redden says. “But these kids, they always say, yes ma’am, and ask how we’re doing and they are always smiling.”

These children also planted a garden of squash, okra, tomatoes, etc. Teasley along with helpers Marley Williams and Victoria Okereke help the youngsters seed and tend the garden, but so have the Reddens’ caregivers Mary Bivins and Annie Jackson, and the bus driver who brings the youngsters each week. People see what’s happening with these kids and this garden and they want to participate.

They want to see how this garden and this unexpected community of the Reddens, these small children and their teacher, as well as caregivers, bus drivers and others, will grow.

Future Harvest

Jane Teasley hopes it will grow into a program that not only introduces more children to gardening but one that will create a community garden that will provide fresh produce to more people who want and need it.

Though she will be a full-time Sallas-Mahone teacher come the 2013-14 academic year, Teasley plans to continue working toward this goal and helping children tend the Reddens’ garden.

As for the Reddens, they are looking forward to trying some fresh squash soon and seeing their new friends again and again in the weeks to come.

More information on this program or how to support it, contact the Boys & Girls Club of Valdosta, (229) 242-2058.