An Oasis in Camden

On a mid-October morning, cherry tomatoes loll on the vine.  Frilly mustard greens flutter in the breeze.  Flowers refusing to bow to the season keep a colorful vigil in their beds.  And some two dozen souls arrive to weed, hoe, harvest, cook, laugh, eat and sing in an uncommon communion of spirits.

It’s a typical Saturday morning at the Garden Project, a ritual that has brought women from a Camden halfway house and volunteers to a lush little oasis in the city’s downtown every week for the last five years.

The action unfolds on the grounds of the Newton Meeting which jointly sponsors the Garden Project with Haddonfield Monthly Meeting. HMM spearheads Friends Transitions Support Services, of which the Garden Project is a component.

“They always make you feel welcome,” said a Garrett House resident from Atlantic City who has taken part in the Garden Project since 2009.    “If there’s anything they can do for you, they will.”

The “they” is a diverse array of volunteers, led by Priscilla Adams of HMM and Ruth Darlington of Medford Monthly Meeting, who envisioned a three-month program for women in the Camden halfway house during the summer of 2006.  But as the summer ended, the women were not ready to quit.

“The women asked if we could keep going through the winter,” Ruth said.  “They are stuck in a dehumanizing system, and Priscilla has a way of making the women understand just how precious they are.”

So every Saturday, Priscilla, Ruth and other volunteers from Newton, Haddonfield, Medford, Westfield, Moorestown and Cropwell  Monthly Meetings join a dozen or so Garrett House residents to tend an organic garden, prepare and share a simple lunch.  Even chores like cooking, weeding and cleaning hold an allure for women deprived of such activities due to incarceration.  During the winter and on rainy days, they may focus on knitting, jewelry-making or discussing nutrition or alternative methods of dispute resolution.  During summer and fall, the luncheon features the fruits of the garden.

And what a garden it is!  Watermelons and beans.  Butternut squash and kale. Tomatoes and glorious sunflowers.  The miniature Eden is like a beacon to women from Garrett House, more than 200 of whom have taken part in the project.

The volunteers lend support in many ways: from offering encouraging words to providing assistance with locating housing and furnishings.  Many of the women maintain ties to the Garden Project long after they have left Garrett House and returned to their homes.  And many credit the Garden Project with helping them launch constructive new lives for themselves.

But the halfway house residents are hardly alone in reaping benefits.

“As a volunteer, I might get more out of it than they do,” said Olivia Gamber, 15, a member of Moorestown Monthly Meeting who has taken part in the project for two years.  “It’s like a sanctuary.  You can be yourself. The only rules are that everyone treats everyone else positively.  So it’s a positive place for me to come, too.”

Individual donations to the Garden Project can be made via check to Haddonfield Friends Meeting, with “FTSS Garden Project” in the memo section.  Send to Haddonfield Meeting, 45 Friends Avenue, Haddonfield, NJ 08033.

Submitted by Sarah Greenblatt

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