Sprouts are just starting to pop at Clubhouse of Suffolk's chemical-free garden, but Bill Kelly, Ed Albrecht and Ray Flannagan have been digging in for weeks on what they expect to be a bumper crop.
"It's been a good, early start," said Kelly, a member and a peer specialist at Clubhouse, who has led the garden activities at the psychiatric rehabilitation center in Ronkonkoma since the garden's start in 2009.
The first year, says Kelly, 56, was not very successful. "We didn't have a lot of education or training," he said.
After being formally trained in gardening by the Cornell Cooperative Extension program, Kelly began to teach other members about organic gardening, and together, they were able to produce crops used for meals for members and staff.
"The goal is to grow crops, but it helps the members gain a connection to the environment and nature," said Ruth McDade, the center's director of development. Kelly, Albrecht and Flannagan have credited the garden for helping them cope with their mental illnesses.
"Once I'm doing something constructive, I'm not doing something destructive," said Albrecht, 58, who suffers from depression and anti-social personality disorder.
Flannagan, 56, said working in the garden has helped his anxiety and depression. He says the garden and Clubhouse have also helped his physical health. "[People in the mental health system] have health problems, and they die younger because of poor nutrition," Flannagan said.
Kelly, who suffers from bipolar disorder and depression, says it's been therapeutic. "It's given me a need to function better," he said.
The exercise also allows Clubhouse members to give back to the community.
Leftover crops are sent to Charlotte's Table, a food pantry for the Clubhouse that Albrecht organized. The pantry is open Wednesdays from 2 to 6 p.m. for community members in need. The pantry, which also receives donations from Island Harvest and Long Island Cares Inc., provided food to 74 families last month, Albrecht said.
Enclosed by fences, the 200-by-100-foot garden, one block from the center, contains 10 to 12 raised wooden beds along with several ground beds.
Albrecht, Kelly and Flannagan expect another successful season with crops such as eggplant, tomatoes, lettuce and squash. The labyrinth-designed garden will contain 3-by-6-foot planters filled with flowers to attract wildlife, such as butterflies and birds, that will help pollinate the crops.
McDade said there are plans to install benches so members have a place for reflection.
For now, the men focus on building raised beds and caring for seedlings, which they plan to transfer into the garden next month. They do most of the work on Saturdays; all three members find that it keeps them active.
"It's peaceful and quiet," Albrecht said. "Once you start getting into it, you don't really want to stop."
The goal of The Clubhouse of Suffolk is to help those affected by mental illness to lead more productive and healthy lives.
-- Group art therapy
-- Adventure-based counseling
-- Classes in Tai Chi
-- Daily meditation