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Students with Disabilities Find Community in Gardening

Students with Disabilities Find Community in Gardening

In August, Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program partner, Mobility International-USA (MIUSA) hosted a five-day workshop for international high school students with disabilities from the FLEX (Future Leaders Exchange) and YES programs.

The FLEX program includes students from countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union while the YES program involves students from countries with significant Muslim populations. Throw in a student from A-SMYLE (American Serbia and Montenegro Youth Leadership Exchange), and this workshop brought together students from a wide range of backgrounds and disabilities as they prepared for a year of high school in the United States. It was a critical time for the students as prepared to adjust to new schools, host families, culture, languages, varying access issues and new ways of approaching disability.

One highlight from their week-long visit was their community service project with Grassroots Garden. Grassroots Garden, which grows food for the hungry in Lane County, Oregon, has thousands of volunteers each year, and its two and a half acres were vibrant with late summer’s crops. Students spent a Saturday morning mulching beds, harvesting chard, squash and snap peas, preparing lunch and thinning carrots. By volunteering in the garden, students become part of the American community even as they worked towards becoming part of a larger international community of people with disabilities.

In the garden, students put their first tentative roots into their new homes, and learned  through all of their senses, about their new host country. Blind students explored the gardens through taste and touch. Students with mobility disabilities prepared homemade applesauce or searched overgrown plants for ripe zucchini. Everyone was able to contribute, regardless of disability.

A deaf student from the Philippines led a blind student from Ghana along rows of raised beds. Kazakhs and Egyptians shared stories (and the last of summer’s snap peas) with Turks and Ukrainians. Students reached across disability, religion and ethnicity, and in the process discovered that there is perhaps no better place than a garden to find common ground—and a sense of community.

The FLEX (Future Leaders Exchange), YES (Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study) and A-SMYLE (American Serbia and Montenegro Youth Leadership Exchange) programs, as well as MIUSA’s workshops for these students, are sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State.

Further details of MIUSA or this story can be found at http://www.miusablog.org/.