First Step team removes barriers in community gardens for people with disabilities

Students work at the Luthern Community Service to provide wheelchair and disability access to the gardens at the center.A little hill. A community garden at Lutheran Community Services in Northwest Wilmington is perched on a little hill. It’s not much of a hill when you stand in front of it, but for someone in a wheelchair, it’s enough to keep them out of the garden.

After talking to community members, Spencer Hoernes, a student in the University of Delaware College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, decided to investigate.

He discovered that 25 percent of people with a physical or visual disability live in poverty. This garden is located in the highest disabilities and food insecurity rates in Wilmington, so improvements would mean garden new community members could finally take part.

“After discussing my thoughts with Lutheran Community Services, we agreed that the garden needed wheelchair access,” said Hoernes. “I’m very interested in learning how gardening would impact the quality of life of a person with disabilities.”

So he created Green Inclusion to take on the challenge of converting the local plot into a disability-friendly garden.

Hoernes, a food science major, entered his team into First Step Grand Challenges, a UD competition that invites undergraduate students across disciplines to identify societal and environmental challenges. After identifying a problem, students are charged with developing novel solutions.

The undergraduates are tackling issues from CPR to veterans’ assistance to diversity.

While the competition is run by the College of Health Sciences and the Horn Program in Entrepreneurship, First Step boasts students from all seven colleges — a true interdisciplinary competition.

Early in the fall semester, the teams began formulating their ideas. Each was given $500 to get their projects off the ground. Green Inclusion started off with a focus on creating a garden compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But, like many of the First Step teams, Green Inclusion’s project soared to something greater.

The group is planning multiple projects at the Wilmington garden — installation of a ramp, new raised beds for easier access, purchasing disability-friendly tools, incorporating a braille system for the visually impaired, and creating an open source site that would allow anyone in the country to pattern their own garden after that in Wilmington. This open source mindset illustrates the group’s desire to take this project beyond Delaware.

“If someone wants to recreate our garden, they will be able to find the schematics and step-by-step processes on our site for free,” Hoernes said. “That way, we are not only creating it for Wilmington, but for the entire world.”

In order to accomplish all of this, Hoernes needed someone with a background in disabilities studies, so First Step connected with Mariah Graham, a junior cognitive science major and disability studies minor.

“We didn’t realize how excited we were to tackle all of these projects,” said Graham. “It has become so much bigger than we imagined.”

And it’s not accessibility that’s the chief outcome, it’s the impact. For a person with disabilities who might otherwise never get a chance to grow food with their own hands, the act of gardening can improve self-worth and help eliminate depression.

“If they are included in this garden, they feel more included in the community. That’s how you raise people’s spirits,” said Graham.

After a yearlong competition, the First Step field was whittled down to Green Inclusion and 20 other teams. The competition culminates on Wednesday evening, April 6, at the STAR Health Sciences Complex when Hoernes, Graham and more than 90 other undergraduates compete at the poster presentation and awards dinner. The doors open at 6 p.m. with the poster session preceding spotlight presentations and an awards ceremony.

Students will pitch their ideas to judges from the professional, non-profit and academic arenas, who will focus on feasibility, societal and environmental impact. They will crown a champion that evening with $10,000 in awards on the line. The majority of the $1,000 third-place, $2,500 second place and $5,000 first-place prizes is allocated for project continuation, so students can further progress their innovative ideas and make the solutions come alive.

To ensure the projects live on, First Step’s creators established a rule that each team must have at least one non-senior.

“Our hope is to see members of the winning teams carry on and continue to develop their ideas,” says Sarah LaFave, program coordinator in the College of Health Sciences. “Students may choose to apply to First Step Grand Challenges again next year, a Horn Program opportunity like Hen Hatch, participate in undergraduate research or use some other means to take their project to the next level.”

So if Hoernes and Graham walk away with seed money, you can probably guess where they’re going to plant it.

“We want the garden to be a focal point for Northwest Wilmington — let it be an escape for daily life where people can be with nature,” said Hoernes. “It’s a place to relax, but also produces food for the community.”

Those who plan to attend the First Step Grand Challenge finals on Wednesday evening are asked to register in advance.

Article by Dante LaPenta

Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.