Growing a community: Residents on a brain injury campus work together on a garden and a grant from Lowe’s | TheFencePost.com

Growing a community: Residents on a brain injury campus work together on a garden and a grant from Lowe’s

Dan England

Stephens Farm, with its welcoming sign out front and older-looking white buildings at the end of a circle driveway, looks like a traditional bed and breakfast.

It seems like a nice place to live. But Deanna VanWagner and Christina Morris both say it has its downsides.

They live with 16 other residents, so there's the inevitable tension that close quarters can create. VanWagner and Morris admit they have had their screaming matches between them.

They also know their options are limited. The two, like the others, have brain injuries. They're not afraid to talk about it. Like many life-changing injuries, they were debilitating enough they needed some help.

“I really wanted the garden because I like pretty. I know that sounds kind of childish, but I just really like pretty.”

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They like Stephens Farm, in other words, but it's not their former life, the one they lived before they were injured. Sometimes they wish it felt more like home.

That's why the two were digging in the dirt on a weekday morning, with the sun spraying down on the flowers, vegetables and herbs in the new wooden planters.

For 13 years, VanWagner has lived at Stephens. She began to ask for a garden years ago. She had good memories from watering her parents' garden, especially the flowers, during her time in Castle Rock, before the car crash when she was 15.

"I just wanted to see stuff grow," she said.

Rebecca Starke, as the community engagement manager, decided to see what she could do. She loves to garden, too. Stephens set aside a little money, but Starke wanted something much bigger. She didn't want to disappoint VanWagner.

"We did little planters, you know, like a tomato plant," Starke said, "but that was one plant. It wasn't a garden."

So Starke searched for donations and grants and stumbled across the Heroes Project from Lowe's. Local stores select one recipient, and the Greeley store picked Stephens. The award included both the money to build a substantial garden and the planters and the staff to provide both labor and smarts. The work began a couple months ago. Most of it is done now. Now it's up to them to keep it going.

Morris remembers watching her grandfather work in his garden when she was a little girl. She, like VanWagner, was in a car crash. She was 26. She's 36 now.

"I really wanted the garden because I like pretty," Morris said. "I know that sounds kind of childish, but I just really like pretty."

The garden should provide a lot more than the pretty Morris loves. Eventually there will be vegetables, fruits and herbs, including cilantro, that Stephens' chef hopes to use in the meals she prepares for the residents.

Starke and others who work there are already seeing some extra benefits other than free meals. On a Saturday morning, VanWagner and Morris were outside with a couple others working in the dirt. Others came out to help. Soon there was a small crowd out there. And they haven't seen that kind of collaborative effort from the residents, at least not to that degree.

That's what Starke and the other workers like about it. It's not a "therapy" garden. It's just a garden. It's a choice. It's a way for others to contribute.

There's even some signs the garden could help the patients get a little better.

"We are processing what Rebecca (Starke) is saying and listening to her," Morris said and laughed, "and you know, traumatic brain injury and all, that doesn't always happen. Personally, I'm so proud of us."

And then she and VanWagner, two women who admit to screaming at each other at times, exchanged a high-five.

The garden isn't done yet. There's still some more digging to do and a few dirt piles to scatter. But they think it will be ready by September. When it's done, the residents will throw a barbecue outside next to it, the way a family might enjoy the fruits of a big home project.

— Dan England is The Greeley Tribune's Features Editor. If you have an idea for a column, call (970) 392-4418 or email dengland@greeleytribune.com. Follow him on Twitter @ DanEngland.