Garden Gives Spice to Lives of Brain-Injured Accident Survivors

There is a very special garden in Long Beach.

But it's not the garden itself--designed as a traditional English knot garden--that's so special. Nor is it the location--a commercial area where Spring Street meets Long Beach Boulevard in Long Beach.

It's the gardeners--the 10-member "Green Team"--that make this demonstration plot for Rosemary Clooney's Herbs such a special place.

The "Green Team" gardeners, nine men and one woman, are all survivors of brain injuries suffered in auto, motorcycle, bicycle and other accidents. Their gardening is part of their rehabilitation to overcome varying degrees of limited motor activity and short-term memory loss. They wear green T-shirts and baseball caps, all labeled "Chief."

The work of the Green Team begins with seed propagation and seedling transplanting in the nursery and includes soil preparation, planting, irrigation and weeding. It culminates with harvesting, display and sale of the crops from the garden and another one nearby.

Chris (Sammy) Samuelson, 25, was a house framer until three years ago, when he was injured in a car accident. Now he is assistant manager of the Country Store, adjacent to the garden, and shares responsibility for cashiering, inventory and sales.

A walker helps him get around the store or to the potting area, where he also lends a hand. To relieve stress, Sammy will take a break and hitch a ride into the garden on a flat cart. Monsieur Gaston, the gardeners' French poodle mascot, often tags along.

Sammy shows his organizational skills in tracking inventory, and a marketing talent that springs from pride in his product.

At lunch, he poked the salad made with their fresh lettuces and herbs. "Where else around here can people buy this kind of fresh-out-of-the-garden stuff?" he asked. "I have a brochure in mind to put in dry-cleaner stores, Laundromats, car washes. . . . I want to let people know about us."

Tiffany Wagoner, 18, another member of the Green Team, shares Sammy's position in the store. Her progress since she was hit in a crosswalk six years ago now reveals an artistic ability that shows itself in the refrigerated display case of the garden's crops: basil sprigs nestle between red tomatoes, fuzzy cucumber leaves contrast with slick purple eggplants and yellow squash blossoms set off young green zucchinis.

The garden is part of the Betty Clooney Center, which opened last year and is a part of the Betty Clooney Foundation for Persons With Brain Injury, founded by singer Rosemary Clooney who named it after her sister.

Rosemary Clooney gained an acute awareness of brain injury with Betty Clooney's death from an aneurysm in 1977. That awareness was heightened two years later when a distant relative, Sandy Holvey, suffered a brain injury in a water-skiing accident.

During Holvey's rehabilitation, Clooney became aware that affordable long-term programs were virtually nonexistent in this country. She decided to do something about the unmet need and formed the Clooney foundation.

Today, Sandy Holvey leads tours of the Betty Clooney Center and is one of 120 center members, who come voluntarily for rehabilitation, support and company. About 56 members come each day. The age range is from 19 to 42 years, the average age is 25; 20% of the members are women.

Work in Four Programs

The center's goal is to help its members, with the support of staff, to acquire skills that will help them toward independence in the work community.

Each member must work in one of four center programs: Rosemary Clooney's Herbs, which incorporates two gardens and the Country Store; the communications program, which trains members in clerical work, telephone, office functions and newsletter publishing, and the maintenance program, which teaches janitorial and repair jobs.

The fourth program, and the only one not funded by the state Department of Rehabilitation, is Cafe Clooney, an in-house restaurant/snack bar that utilizes adaptive devices such as a one-handed can opener to assist member workers.

Linking the four divisions is a recreational plan that provides companionship and a sense of community that, according to Executive Director Cathy DeMello, the members find lacking in their lives.

The garden project began last year on a one-third acre plot on Spring Street behind the center leased from California Edison Co. The Jesse M. Unruh Foundation provided start-up capital of $85,651, and last February the growing business began. Later, a nearby three-quarter acre plot off Pasadena Avenue loaned by Long Beach Memorial Hospital was added.

Seasonal Specialties

Now, in the Country Store from Monday through Friday and the open market on Wednesday and Friday, the pungent aroma of just-picked basil tempts cooks to look up their pesto recipes. Also on sale are oregano, tarragon, rosemary and other herbs.

Gourmet lettuces, baby vegetables and seasonal specialties such as sweet corn presented in a wheelbarrow, vine ripened tomatoes and their exclusive Dutch string bean are offered to the retail and wholesale trade.

The store also offers dried and living wreaths and mail orders their T-shirts, garden aprons, honey processed on site, stone art by Dorte Christjansen and hand-braided garlic strands.

Quality control is maintained by strategically timed harvests and meticulous washing of the produce by harvest chiefs Mike Olson and Martin Barrajas. Both teammates are learning techniques that they hope will lead to gardening employment.

Like Martin and Mike, most Green Team members are beginners, but they receive expert instruction and supervision under Jack Jonas, staff horticulturist. Jonas, who utilizes an organic method, was educated at the Boskoop Horticultural Institute in Holland and joined the staff six months after the garden opened.

Challenge of Getting There

Beside expertise, Jack brings a sensitivity to his position acquired through the recovery of his brain-injured daughter, her mastery of adaptive driving and eventual return to employment.

Just getting to the center is a real test for some members. Because very few drive, they depend on family-organized car pools, drivers or public transportation.

One day recently, Shaun Robinson, 21, rode the bus from his home in Palos Verdes Peninsula. It was, he said, the "best day" in five years since his motorcycle accident, three-month coma and following battle with memory loss. He was able to remember where to transfer, what new bus to board and to tell the driver his destination.

"I met a friend on the bus. He helped me with my memory, but," he added wistfully, "I can't remember his name. . . ."

Robinson is the Green Team chief of production and is in charge of the potting area in the shade house. A month ago, a visitor found him sitting at a table in the back of the Country Store writing industriously in a notebook.

'Liked Driving Fast'

"When I work at my job I like to get the plants, the pots, the dirt, the tools all ready." "This," he said tapping the notebook, "helps me organize my thoughts the same way, then I can improve quicker."

"Before my accident I liked driving fast, parties, girls, drinking. . . . The day I came home from the hospital was my 'worst' day. My friends came to the house. 'Hey look everybody,' they yelled, 'Shaun is back, let's party.'

"I looked at them and said, 'Who are they?' I looked the same, but they didn't know I was different on the inside. I saw where I was at, and the emotional pain drove me crazy.

"Now I am like this page," he said flicking the book with his finger, "I am living on the flip side; I've slowed down. I look at things differently, and I focus on what I can do."

The choice of the herb garden as a business for persons with brain injuries was not a casual selection. The project is the result of research by Partners in Progress, a merger of the Clooney foundation and Coastline College, funded by a one-year grant from the National Institute on Disability Research.

"It was just what we were looking for," explained Margo Baumgardner, board member, volunteer business manager and landscape designer who created the English knot garden.

"Herbs are resilient and take hard knocks from our beginning gardeners and a commercial garden accommodates a hierarchy of abilities from cashiering to watering," she said. "Each step is vital and the repetition is excellent for rebuilding memory patterns."

Increased Self-Esteem

Of the center's four programs, the herb garden has the highest rate of attendance, which Baumgardner attributes to the Green Team members' increased self-esteem from their experience of being needed.

"There are crops to be picked, seedlings to be watered or they are lost . . . there is a tremendous feeling of pride in seeing a crop sold that began when you opened the seed packet," she said.

The garden is laid out with wide, decomposed granite paths in a traditional English knot garden design, usually consisting of a square garden within a garden planted with continuous bands of low plants in geometric patterns.

Billowing oregano and spiked purple Salvia Victoria create exciting contrasts, yellow clouds of little 'Lemon Gem' marigolds repeat a keynote color and succulent lettuces huddle in the protective shade under staked pole beans and latticed cucumbers. Flashes of burnished red leaves signal the zesty mustard green, which prompts a caution from Mike Olson: "Forget the mustard when you slip that into your corned beef sandwich."

Knows Whom to Call

All around the bordering fence, towers of foxglove and blue delphiniums complement the yellow roses, lots of yellow roses. "They are, after all, Rosemary's favorite flower," Baumgardner said with a smile, referring to the center's founder.

Baumgardner knows whom to call for each job. When she could not reach a high beam in the Country Store she called for "A. J." over the public address system. Enter Allan K. Johnson, a tall man with a long reach who hammered in a nail and hoisted a wreath for display.

A. J., 42, was injured three years ago in an auto accident, and he recently achieved one of his long-term goals. He is now able to resume work part time for his previous employer, David Barnes, who has a pool and maintenance business in Garden Grove.

Not all employees can or choose to be so accommodating, but a new grant to facilitate transitional employment may ease that situation.

DeMello explained that employers are compensated for half of the brain-injured person's wages, and a job coach, paid for by the state, helps the person back into the work community.

Repetitive Tasks, Notebooks

Before a member is ready for outside work, DeMello added, the memory loss is retrained and compensated for through repetitive tasks and notebooks that each new member carries. Later, when they are ready to be employed, they are graduated to index cards to remind them of the day's chores and needed tools.

The philosophy of the work-oriented program to build self-esteem avoids coddling and, in DeMello's opinion, is the most successful.

The center has the the highest attendance rate " . . . of any rehabilitative program I know in 15 professional years in rehabilitation and special education."

Shaun Robinson has another way of expressing what happens to members at the center. While trimming spent flowers from the daisies in the garden, he confided to a volunteer, "I'm giving them a power boost," then concluded, "they are giving me a power boost."


* The Betty Clooney Foundation was started by singer Rosemary Clooney after her sister, Betty, died of an aneurysm, and another relative suffered a brain injury in a water-skiing accident.


Rosemary Clooney's Herbs, Country Store are located behind the Betty Clooney Center, 2951 Long Beach Blvd., Long Beach, Calif. 90806. The entrance is to the south around the corner on Canton Street. It's open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Telephone (213) 426-TYME. For list of mail-order items send a stamped, self-addressed, business-sized envelope.

Employers interested in hiring a member of the Betty Clooney Center are asked to write or call Executive Director Cathy DeMello at (213) 492-6488.

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