Little Red Hen’s new Park & Garden provides an outdoor classroom for the developmentally disabled
Visitors to the new Little Red Hen Park & Garden may have to engage their imaginations a bit to keep up with the space’s supervisor and go-to man, Ruben Rivera.
“This one’s going to be a peacock. This one, it’s going to be a mermaid!” said Rivera with a laugh, pointing to two massive cement blocks sticking out of the ground—objects found in the once-empty lot now known as the Park & Garden. Three Little Red Hen employees worked nearby, pick-axing the hard-packed, rocky soil around another cement monolith toward the front of the garden, preparing the area for an “archeological garden” featuring a sand pit for digging up pretend artifacts and “prehistoric plants” like the gingko biloba trees lined up behind the workers.
The monolith is “going to be a dinosaur sculpture—we’re going to have four dinosaur heads, one on each side,” Rivera said with a smile. The prehistoric garden is just one of many inventive ideas that make this two-acre garden and outdoor classroom unique in Chico. Some, like an operating mini train that will loop the interior of the park, are still just ideas. But others are ready to use, like the rainbow reading bench, where children can gather to read stories; the Wall of Hope, made of hundreds of tiles painted by developmentally disabled children over the last 10 years; and the very productive raised-bed vegetable gardens.
“It’s a place where classrooms, and children with developmental disabilities, can come and safely explore and play,” explained Pam Parrish, nursery manager at Little Red Hen. The Park & Garden is the brainchild of Little Red Hen’s founder and executive director, Teresa Wolk Hayes. Hayes started the Little Red Hen organization with the mission of providing Chico’s developmentally disabled with educational and employment opportunities; the nonprofit employs about 85 developmentally disabled adults, including more than a dozen at the Park & Garden.
Fulfilling that mission began with the Little Red Hen nursery on East Eighth Street, which opened in 2000, and its associated greenhouse on East Ninth Street. Little Red Hen also has a gift shop on East 20th Street, and the Kids & Kitchen shop, the Park & Garden and the Vintage Shop—all three off of East Avenue. (The brand-new Little Red Hen Vintage shop, right around the corner from the Park & Garden, had its grand opening just last week, and also features an online Etsy.com shop.)
The Park & Garden inhabits an old lot next to Spiteri’s Deli. Two and a half years ago, “the Spiteri family came to me to say they had some land” that they wanted to allow Little Red Hen to use for free, explained Hayes. “Our job is just to make it look beautiful.”
While all of Little Red Hen’s ventures have provided employment opportunities for the developmentally disabled, the Park & Garden takes it a step further. Although Chico classrooms have been enjoying field trips to the nursery for years, the Park & Garden takes the “therapeutic” garden experiences of “getting them to touch the soil, sticking their hands in the soil, watering,” and other basic nursery work to the next level by creating a dedicated space for play and learning, said Hayes.
“We had one really tough group of severely handicapped [students from a Chico school], and we just couldn’t have them at the nursery because it was just so much work,” said Hayes. This fall, they began visiting the Park & Garden’s enclosed, private space instead. They are one of the first groups to try out the space. Once more of the stations are completed—and once the program’s kinks are worked out, said Hayes—the Park & Garden will be used regularly and widely for classrooms throughout the whole community, hopefully starting this coming spring.
Several of Little Red Hen’s internal programs, like its Community Sprouts program, already use the space. Community Sprouts helps “mostly kids with autism who have a hard time going out into the community … practice skills in the community,” said Hayes. “The Sprouts, when the weather is good, they come out. And they’ll have more of a presence as [Rivera and Little Red Hen workers] keep on building,” Parrish said. Other programs, like Butte County Office of Education’s Regional Occupation Program (ROP) class offered through CARD, are already using the space to provide students with the opportunity to gain valuable job skills like landscaping, building, and gardening.
Staff members of all the Little Red Hen stores and the nursery also have benefits—they can join Rivera for workshops to learn about growing vegetables, and they get to take home all the veggies that grow in the gardens. Developmentally disabled people “have the highest rate of issues that are related to poor eating habits, [like] obesity,” Hayes noted. “The Park & Garden has 13 planter beds, [which is] a way to teach disabled adults how to eat locally, how to eat better, and how to grow their own food.”
Any extra vegetables—Rivera is a Master Gardener, and consequently, the vegetable beds are overflowing with tomatoes, kale, cauliflower, broccoli, parsley and more, even in mid-November—don’t go to waste. “The Park & Garden distributes food to any organization that serves disabled adults,” said Hayes.
Amazingly, Hayes and Rivera are already planning a new arm to the Park & Garden, where children can have their own raised garden beds, with “planter beds that are on their level,” said Hayes, along with additional children-centered sensory- and water-play features.
The massive project continues to grow, aided by the big imaginations and hearts of the Little Red Hen staff. Rivera summed it up: “Chico doesn’t have anything quite like this.”