Home & Garden

Greenhouse 17 combines gardening, business and healing for survivors of domestic violence

Greenhouse 17 staffer Christina Lane, left, and intern Rachel Mauro cut zinnias in the garden at Greenhouse 17.
Greenhouse 17 staffer Christina Lane, left, and intern Rachel Mauro cut zinnias in the garden at Greenhouse 17. Herald-Leader

By 8 a.m. most days, Mia Smith is already in Greenhouse 17's garden, ready to cut flowers, pull weeds, harvest vegetables, turn compost or whatever else needs doing that day.

Smith likes garden work. She likes the peace, when the only sounds are birds singing.

"When I come down here, it's being in the moment. Nobody can stomp your spirit, or rush your vibe. Your mind can breathe," she said one morning recently. "I feel protective of the garden; make sure things grow and thrive."

Formerly the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program, Greenhouse 17 is a shelter for victims of intimate partner abuse, where survivors can grow, flourish and leave the trauma of violence behind. Smith is a resident.

The program moved in 2005 from Lexington to 40 acres of beautiful farmland on Briar Hill Road. That move triggered a serendipitous chain of events that significantly changed the agency.

"At that time, our funding was being slashed," said Christina Lane, farm-to-table coordinator for Greenhouse 17. "Everybody was concerned. Diane Fleet, our assistant director, said, 'We have 40 acres. Why don't we farm?'"

Fleet attended a conference sponsored by the Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence, where Jim Embry spoke.

Embry, a Kentuckian, lived several years in Detroit and worked as a community activist, using his passion for urban agriculture to help young people, gang members and teen moms "transform themselves as individuals, and transform their communities through youth activism, like in the 1960s," he said.

When Embry moved back to Lexington, he brought his activist spirit, with the focus always on gardening, the environment, food and nature. He organized the Sustainable Community Network and promoted community gardens among churches, with the city parks department, neighborhood associations, Fayette County Public Schools, the Martin Luther King Academy and Chrysalis House. He gave workshops, wrote a manual on community gardens and spoke to civic organizations, urging them to organize community gardens.

He coordinated an annual Food Summit and, later, led tours of community gardens around the city.

"The concept of community gardens hadn't caught on in Lexington at that time," Fleet said. "Jim brought a unique passion for gardening, the environment and eating healthy that was new to many people here."

Fleet met with Embry. He told her about the Catherine Ferguson Academy for teenage moms in Detroit. The academy had a working farm where the girls took care of horses, cows, goats, beehives, fruit trees and vegetable gardens. They baled hay, churned butter, operated a produce market and built a barn. The experience was empowering and transformative. The students had a 99 percent graduation rate, Embry said, and 90 percent went on to post-secondary education.

"He gave us all kinds of ideas," Fleet said. In addition, "Jim is a great connector. He introduced us to key people at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture and throughout the community."

"Jim was instrumental in the beginning," Lane said. "He took us to other community gardens to see what they were doing. He said, 'You could do this.'"

Fleet added, "He pieced together people who could help us, then he stepped back. Jim doesn't control things. We did the rest. He became a cheerleader."

Embracing a commitment to a community garden "completely transformed" the Bluegrass Domestic Violence program, Fleet said. "We still had social services, but we became so much more. Our program is tremendously different now than when we moved out here."

A large vegetable garden, an orchard and berry bushes supply produce for the shelter's kitchen. There are six hoop houses, a small greenhouse, a barn and a building that houses a commercial kitchen, built with donations from benefactors.

With herbs raised on the farm, the residents make a line of candles, soaps, salve and lip balm sold on the Etsy website with the name "Fresh Start — Handmade by Survivors."

Last year, under the direction of farm manager Jessica Ballard, Greenhouse 17 started a flower CSA (community supported agriculture) and has 40 paid members who receive weekly bouquets of flowers. Ballard and her two farm employees provide flowers for special events and weddings. Ten residents, including Smith, each work 10 hours a week on the farm for a small stipend.

"It feels good to be good at something, and get money for it," said Smith, who also prepares food from the garden for the 24 women and 13 children who currently live at the shelter.

To denote the transformative impact horticulture has had on the organization, three years ago it was renamed from the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program to Greenhouse 17.

A greenhouse is a safe structure that offers protection until things can grow and flourish on their own. "That describes what we do," Fleet said. The 17 represents the 17 counties served by the program.

Response from residents was immediately positive, Smith said.

"Greenhouse 17 doesn't have an institutional sound. It sounds positive," she said. "Women were embarrassed to go for a job interview and have to say they lived at the Bluegrass Domestic Violence shelter."

Another significant change was that the shelter no longer kept its location secret. Individual volunteers and groups from companies like LexMark come to the farm to work. Last month, 300 youngsters on a mission trip arrived one morning and painted all the fences. Girl Scout Troop 21 built a picnic shelter in 2012, with tables and a fire pit for evening bonfires.

"The evolution in our relationship with the community has been huge. Bringing community groups out here defines us differently," Fleet said. "We have made whole new relationships."

She said she'd like the farm to be economically self-sustaining and pay the farm's two staffers from its income instead of drawing their salaries out of the general fund. She hopes more residents can work for a stipend, as Smith does. She also would like to perhaps open a small café that would give survivors small-business training and micro-enterprise opportunities.

Looking around the farm one recent morning, Fleet said, she mused about Embry's influence.

"Jim was the catalyst," she said. "He had so many good ideas. He encouraged us. We wouldn't be doing what we're doing today if it weren't for Jim."