She’s remembered as “the salsa lady.”
She struggled with alcoholism. She came to the domestic violence shelter, GreenHouse17, but she never stayed long, executive director Darlene Thomas and associate director Diane Fleet said.
“We were always glad to have her here, but it just never lasted long,” Fleet said.
Then something changed. About seven years ago, the shelter developed a farm. Like many of its rural neighbors on the outskirts of Lexington, it has rows of vegetables, flower beds, fruit trees and even beehives on 40 acres of farmland. But unlike the other farms, this one is a domestic violence shelter.
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The farm enhanced the program, and it changed “the salsa lady.”
“All the sudden, she really kind of connected to the farm,” Fleet said. “She was greeting new residents with fresh flowers and food; she was sort of the welcome wagon of GreenHouse17.”
After she got involved with the farming project, she stayed sober longer than she ever had. She baked the “the best peanut butter cookies” and even impressed a visiting congressman with her homemade salsa.
Now, years later, she continues to stay in touch with the shelter staff. Her struggle with alcohol abuse continues, but the salsa lady knows that GreenHouse17 is a safe place she can always return to, Thomas said.
Thomas and Fleet agreed that the salsa lady’s experience at the farm became a pivotal point for the staff, who began to realize the benefits that gardening offered and worked to incorporate the gardens into their own work.
Eventually, a research partnership formed between the shelter and the University of Kentucky Center for Research on Violence Against Women.
Sociology professor Claire Renzetti and the center’s director, Diane Follingstad, collaborated in response to the domestic violence program’s need for evidence of the benefits the gardens provided to the domestic violence survivors. The evidence could be used to help secure funding for the shelter and its programs.
The women began with a qualitative study and interviewed the shelter’s staff, collecting anecdotal evidence of the garden’s therapeutic benefits. Then they began shifting the focus to concentrate more on collecting quantitative data, including the physical, mental and social benefits to working in nature.
“What happens when they’re out there?” Renzetti said. “Is it different — I don’t want to diminish the importance of group therapy — but does something different happen when you’re outside working with plants, making stuff grow, harvesting?”
The research wasn’t easy, Follingstad said. With women coming and going and staying at the shelter for varying periods of time, there were several variables to consider in creating a consistent system for collecting and evaluating data. After developing the data for nearly four years and applying for one federal grant after another, Renzetti and Follingstad received a grant last fall from the Office of Violence Against Women at the Department of Justice and began an intensive three-year research project in January.
All women who work in the gardens receive a stipend, either through GreenHouse17 or by participating in the research. Sometimes, Fleet said, it’s difficult getting the women to get outside. After the first few weeks, though, the women would go out to work even if they weren’t being paid, she said.
It made sense that being in nature would have its benefits, but Fleet said the research component will provide concrete proof of the healing benefits of working outside.
“The mission of the center is not just to do research for the sake of doing research,” Renzetti said. “We have an approach to research where it really is a collaboration; it’s a partnership. How do we produce knowledge that’s useful beyond just putting it in a journal for other researchers to read?”
If at any point the farm or the research shifted the program from its mission of being a place for healing, Fleet said, they wouldn’t do it.
We don’t stay stuck in the trauma, because trauma is not what makes up a whole person.
Darlene Thomas, GreenHouse17 executive director
“Coming to GreenHouse17 is not coming to a place where people victimize you,” Thomas said. “I really think it is a place of pride for many survivors. Don’t get me wrong — we deal with the trauma, absolutely — but we don’t stay stuck in the trauma, because trauma is not what makes up a whole person.”
The domestic violence program began in 2004 at an interim site to provide shelter and basic services to survivors of domestic violence. Originally named Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program, the shelter began its transition after moving to a plot of former farm land in rural Lexington.
Thomas came to Lexington and began as the program’s executive director, working from the ground up to establish a shelter that would serve 17 counties in the Bluegrass region.
“Everything we’ve always done here has been based on the survivor: What might be most beneficial to them?” Thomas said. “We had all this land. What were we going to do with it?”
The project began with a few box garden plots.
Eventually, the program hired a farmer, Jessica Ballard, to work part-time. She brought a level of competence needed to make the gardens successful, Fleet said. Ballard worked with staff member Christina Lane to develop the farm, engaging with the shelter’s residents as they planted, weeded and harvested.
“I know that our women benefit from being outside and being on the farm, being a part of a team and working hard and being with beautiful things,” Ballard. “There’s so many benefits.”
Fleet said it had always been part of the goal that the gardens could be therapeutic, but they exceeded her expectations.
Worthiness is so important to women’s and children’s healing, and I think that’s the beauty of the farm.
Darlene Thomas, GreenHouse17 executive director
“Worthiness is so important to women’s and children’s healing, and I think that’s the beauty of the farm,” Thomas said. “They take great pride in it.”
Before the gardens, Thomas said, the shelter couldn’t afford to buy fresh food for the residents. It relied on processed food to feed 40 people.
Gradually, the meals shifted as the farm grew. One staff member brought food from the farm, and the fried dinners gave way to fresh, well-balanced meals, including soups and wraps.
Fleet said she hadn’t expected the community connections that the farm created.
“It has opened the doors to the community,” Thomas said. “Nobody wants to talk about domestic violence, but people are happy to talk about our flowers and our farm.”
Some residents also make and sell products, including candles and lip balms from flowers and herbs grown in the gardens. The shelter also sells a weekly flower CSA in which members can buy floral arrangements throughout the summer. Selling the products has opened a dialogue with residents who might prefer to skirt the topic of domestic violence but now come and have conversations with the survivors, Thomas said.
Another positive aspect to the farm’s success is the way it welcomed rural women. Often, Thomas said, urban violence shelters struggle to get rural survivors to come into the shelters, and GreenHouse17 was a place outside the city that could make them feel welcome.
Even those who don’t work in the fields might benefit from the gardens, which can provide a sense of purpose and belonging in cooking in the kitchen or in making candles. Ballard said the name represents the safe haven that GreenHouse17 creates.
“A greenhouse is really a safe place for things to thrive and grow when the outside world’s conditions aren’t hospitable,” she said. “You need a safe place to really be the best that you can be. That’s what we want to do here.”
Emma Austin: 859-231-1455