"In recovery, you have to look for reasons to go outside of yourself and to make yourself a little bit uncomfortable in order to continue to grow and change," says Ypsilanti Township resident Kristin Shea. "This garden — or something as small as a plant — could do that for some people."
Shea is a participant in the 14B District Recovery Court's two-year program and one of the creators of A Fresh Start, a new Ypsi Township community garden maintained by individuals in the program. Shea was inspired by the therapeutic, rewarding experience she had when she started gardening about two years ago with her family in a plot at Frog Island Community Garden in Ypsi.
The recovery court's program is a 24-month intensive probation period in which drug offenders and others with substance abuse issues may elect to receive support to help them stay sober and overcome barriers including housing and employment. The program primarily focuses on opioid addiction.
Aiming to share the positive outlet she found in gardening with others in recovery, Shea teamed up with court coordinator Chelsea Brodfuehrer to establish A Fresh Start. The 16-foot-by-40-foot garden opened on the campus of the Ypsilanti Township Civic Center, 7200 S. Huron River Dr., in early June.
Brodfuehrer and Shea initially planned on bringing A Fresh Start to the Frog Island Community Garden. But when Brodfuehrer told judge Charles Pope and magistrate Mark Nelson of the 14B District Court what she and Shea had been up to, they thought it was a great idea and wanted them to set it up in Ypsi Township. Brodfuehrer believes the court and the township's broad support of the project shows both entities' support for the recovery court's program, the recovery process, and people in recovery.
The process moved swiftly once Brodfuehrer and Shea got the go-ahead in late May. After they marked the dimensions of the garden, workers from the township tilled the soil, built a fence, and started putting plants in the ground. They've planted several varieties of tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, and onions, as well as broccoli, lettuce, sweet potatoes, and cucumbers. They also planted flowers at the front of the garden for decorative purposes and to help attract bees. Sell Farms and Greenhouses donated the vegetable plants and Superior Wholesale Landscape Supply donated the topsoil and flowers.
Brodfuehrer and Shea will manage A Fresh Start and enlist recovery court participants and community members to help them maintain it. Anyone who helps out in the garden is welcome to take home produce. If the garden grows an overabundance of produce, it will be made available to anyone who needs it or donated to a local organization like Food Gatherers for distribution.
Everyone who graduates from the program will be asked to create and place in the garden a stepping stone bearing his or her name and graduation date. Brodfuehrer believes the stepping stones will allow participants to "really leave their mark" and reflect on the progress they've made in the last two years. Shea thinks it will help graduates feel like they're still part of the Recovery Court community and give them a reason to visit.
"After we graduate, it’s not like this is going to be, ‘That’s it, you’re done,’ because recovery is a lifelong thing," Shea says. "So to be able to come back and feel like you’re still a part of what’s going on here is important."
Dale Booth placed the first stepping stone at A Fresh Start during his graduation celebration on June 11. Now that he's completed the program, he plans to continue attending meetings and supporting others in their sobriety. He thinks the stepping stones will remind graduates of "where they’ve been and where they’re still going."
Brodfuehrer and Shea share a passion for healthy living and a belief in the importance of caring for the mind and body during the recovery process. They hope A Fresh Start will add even more impact to the recovery court's program by highlighting the benefits of self-care and introducing participants to a more sustainable lifestyle.
"Recovery is not just abstinence, but it’s the way you live your life," Brodfuehrer says. "What you’re putting into your body, who you’re hanging out with, how you’re giving back to your community, what you’re doing with your free time … that’s a really large barrier that people face all the time."
Some people in recovery struggle with adapting to the sober lifestyle, especially when finding things to do for fun. Brodfuehrer hopes the garden will inspire new hobbies by inviting program participants to meet outside of the courtroom in a comfortable environment where they can get their hands dirty. Booth agrees that gardening could help people in recovery occupy their spare time with something other than meetings.
"In the past, that’s why I would relapse, because I would get bored," he says. "I’m not just speaking for me but other people as well. I think boredom is a big trigger for people."
Booth, who started using drugs at a young age, describes his time in the recovery court's program as a "life-changing" experience. Going to jail never helped him turn his life around because he would leave with more connections and wind up using again. He believes more people who are willing to put in the work to get clean should be given the opportunity to participate in a recovery program.
Brodfuehrer emphasizes that the program's goal is helping people adjust to a healthier lifestyle, not just reducing recidivism and preaching abstinence from substance use. She believes it's important to consider the whole person, including his or her background and barriers, when helping him or her get on the right track.
Once the garden starts producing vegetables, Brodfuehrer and Shea plan to implement programming intended to encourage holistically healthy lifestyles. They want to offer gardening, cooking, meditation, and yoga classes as part of A Fresh Start. The cooking classes will teach participants how to make a recipe with produce from the garden, and they'll receive all of the ingredients at the end of the class so they can cook at home.
Brodfuehrer and Shea also want to get the community involved in the garden. Some residents, who heard about the garden through word of mouth, have stopped by to help and ask questions. Brodfuehrer and Shea will likely set up a social media account soon to share information about what's happening at the garden.
Brodfuehrer says many people will initially have an external reason – like a court order – to participate in the program. But ultimately, she hopes those external reasons will give way to more internal motivations for participating – like wanting to help others stay sober.
"Recovery is about working a program and having the 12 steps and having a sponsor, but it’s also so much more than that, like being active in the community and giving back and just having it be your lifestyle," Brodfuehrer says.
Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.
All photos by Doug Coombe.