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East Islip school gardens program plants seeds in autism

Participants in the Grounds for Change program plant

Participants in the Grounds for Change program plant a garden at the high school and middle school in East Islip. Credit: Handout

As the summer days start to shorten and autumn nears, students in East Islip are getting their hands dirty -- for all the right reasons.

The EJ Autism Foundation’s annual Grounds for Change program is giving children with autism and special needs a chance to grow their own garden.

When asked what he liked most about the program, 12-year-old Robbie Phillips replied: “Water.”

“His favorite thing to do is to water the plants in the garden,” explained his mother, Kim Phillips, 54.

Phillips’s son, who is autistic, has been involved in the Grounds for Change project since its inception three years ago.

The program occurs annually between June and October and was initially intended to be a club at the East Islip High School. The EJ Foundation later incorporated the middle school into the program to have gardens located at both the high school and middle school.

Grounds for Change focuses on the collaborative efforts of both autistic and non-autistic students, who come together to grow and cultivate an organic garden. This year, the garden planting took place on June 8. After the middle school and elementary school-aged children had dug the soil and laid out the seeds, children from the EJ Foundation’s summer school tended the plants to ensure their growth. Each year about 30 children have been involved in the program between the two schools.

Bea Huste-Petersen, founder of EJ, named the nonprofit after her sons, Eric and Jack. The organization hosts various events, but Grounds for Change is an attraction each year.

“Over the summer, our kids attending the summer school program maintained the garden,” Huste-Petersen said. “They weeded, debugged, watered and our family consumer science teacher made dishes for the kids to try from the garden such as salsa, kale chips and a cucumber dip.”

Grounds for Change events are open to everyone regardless of physical abilities. Although the gardening is specific only to students and their families in the East Islip school district, parents hope that the model continues in other schools.

Rose Agresta, 41, of Islip Terrace, and her son Anthony, 9, both participated in gardening this year.

“It’s a wonderful thing to have something that they’re proud of, that they helped grow,” Agresta said.

Phillips said when Robbie first started gardening he donned rubber gloves. Now he gardens freely, and has continued to grow and develop.

“Children with autism are tactile, and different things affect them,” she said. “He’s a worker bee, and for him to get down to the soil, it’s a refreshing event, even for him."

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