From the Providence Journal Bulletin, September 9, 1998

Garden helps to put down roots The Literacy Garden helps immigrants learn English and maintain ties with their cultures.

By CRISTY DeARAUJO Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE -- Gardens can be many things -- a source of food, a way to relieve stress, a hobby, a quiet refuge -- but there's also a program in the city that uses gardens as a learning tool.

The Literacy Garden Program was established in 1994 to provide immigrant adults and their families an opportunity to improve their language skills with a community project. The project also linked many of the families to their cultural past.

"It's a diversity garden," said Pam Pomfret, development director for the International Institute, on Elmwood Avenue. "It's a totally family-based project. They're learning English and crossing culture lines."

The institute, which runs the program, was started 77 years ago to provide educational and social services to immigrants and refugees. Its goal is to help people become more self-reliant and enable them to participate in all the opportunities that are open to Americans.

"These are people who have had very little education in their country," explained Betty Simons, one of the program instructors. "Our focus is literacy. The garden was one way to encourage literacy."

Most of the 25 garden families are from a Hmong background. In Laos, where many had lived before coming to the States, they had been gardeners or farmers who tilled the highlands. The garden was chosen by the immigrants as a way to keep a part of their culture while they learned a new one. They wanted to learn from more than just the classroom. They wanted to find an outside source to become more accustomed to the land and the culture.

"The participants run the program," said Pomfret, who explained that, when the immigrants started, "they had been using their spoons and knives to dig" the holes for the plants. But with an $8,600 grant from the United Way, they now have proper tools to work and maintain their gardens, as well as storage spaces for them.

In the neighborhoods where they lived and toiled, the garden became an icebreaker, helping to cross language and cultural barriers. Marie Sepulveda, one of the neighbors, said "I think the gardens are very important. . . . The land looks nice. We feel safer and it looks a lot cleaner here. Before we had it, it was dangerous for us outside. The garden makes us happy."

From May to September, the immigrants handle the maintenance and security of their garden. Every evening, between 5 o'clock and 8 -- weather permitting -- they visit the sites to water, weed or pick the fruits of their labor. It has brought the community together, Simons said.

Neighbors, like Sepulveda, have helped contribute to the garden and the gardeners, as well as pitching in to help with security and water.

The gardeners were also assisted by their two instructors, Simons and Terry Coustan, who sits on the board of the Southside Land Trust. "They devote lots and lots of time to their students," Pomfret said of the teachers.

"We try to introduce new ways of gardening," said Simons, who is an avid gardener in her spare time.

Not only do the participants run the program, they also make decisions on what happens to the gardens. When they outgrew their first garden, which had been donated by the Epiphany Church in Providence, the decision to move was a group effort. The group also elects their co-managers. who serve as facilitators and mediators in resolving problems and working closely with the neighbors.

The four gardens are located on the Southside, on Prairie Avenue and Elma, Mystic and Miner Streets. They received the plots -- totaling a half-acre -- through the Southside Community Land Trust.

"These were run-down lots filled with trash," Simons recalled. "It's a lot more attractive and efficient. It's been a real learning experience."

Another aspect of the program is the family network it creates for the immigrants. Simons said while parents are learning the language, "children are learning right along" with them, as well as understanding and keeping the bond with their own cultural background.

"It's expanded their ties with the community," Simons said. "They've done a marvelous job."

The community also benefits from the program. More neighbors from other cultural backgrounds, such as Latinos and African-Americans, are joining in to assist the gardeners. Pomfret said that the garden is serving as a model that can be replicated in any urban community as long as neighbors are willing to work together.

In the long run, the program, now in its fourth year, hopes to keep up the success it has accumulated. Pomfret said of the workers that "they just want to continue and enlarge," expanding the program for one and all in the neighborhood.

The International Institute, 645 Elmwood Ave., will hold its annual board meeting tomorrow, with Brown University President E. Gordon Gee as the main speaker. There will be an art exhibit by the International Gallery for Heritage and Culture and members of the gardening program are scheduled to be at the meeting, which is open to the public.

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