Mercy Gardens Grow With Love

by Marie Elena Giossi

Assisted by staffer Angela Pionegro, Theresa plants peppers in an elevated garden box as part of the Plant-Grow-Give program at Mercy Home’s Santulli Residence.

Green thumbs have been cropping up at Mercy Home residences in Greenpoint and Rosedale this summer.

Those thumbs belong to developmentally challenged adults taking part in Plant-Grow-Give, an innovative program, developed by staff, which empowers group home residents to learn new skills and take an active role in feeding and caring for the hungry in their communities.

Assisted by direct support staff and community volunteers, residents at both sites cultivated small plots of land for vegetable gardens at the start of summer. Elevated garden boxes have enabled wheelchair users to water, weed and prune the plants alongside ambulatory residents.

Residents and staff are delighted that the gardens are now producing a bountiful harvest. But rather than keep what they’ve grown, the residences are donating more than 90 percent of the produce to local food pantries.

“People who are traditionally on the receiving end of services are now giving to others,” noted Angela Pionegro, director of intermediate care facility services at Santulli Residence, Greenpoint.

Seed money for the project was provided by Frank Fellone III, a Mercy Home board member, who raised $1,900, and guests at the annual Partners in Mercy Luncheon, who pledged another $2,000.

Needy Neighbors in View

At the Santulli Residence, located in the former convent of St. Anthony-St. Alphonsus Church, an enclosed backyard garden gives life to green peppers, tomatoes and eggplants, both purple and white varieties. The first 100 plants were donated from Pionegro’s sister’s farm on Long Island.

Deciding where to deliver the freshly grown produce was as simple as looking out the front window. Greenpoint Reformed Church, located across the street, feeds the hungry with bagged lunches, community dinner parties and grocery distribution on a weekly basis.

As gentrification has brought young, wealthy newcomers to the area, Mercy Home residents and staff have become increasingly aware of their working-class and elderly neighbors queuing up outside the local church for food.

“We recognize the hidden hungry in this gentrifying community,” explained Sister Caroline Tweedy, R.S.M., chief development officer for Mercy Home, “and work with Greenpoint Reformed Church, which takes the donations and uses them in their soup kitchen and food pantry.”

In addition, several autistic men from Mercy Home’s Littlejohn Residence in Crown Heights organize and bag groceries at the church every Wednesday night.

Santulli Residence first made contact with Greenpoint Reformed Church two years ago when Theresa, a longtime resident, and Ana Jimenez, household manager, noticed the food line on their way to the supermarket. That afternoon, Theresa, who loves to bake, whipped up a batch of cupcakes with Jimenez and delivered them to the church.

Theresa’s cupcakes and strawberry cake have since become favorites at the church, where this wheelchair-bound, non-verbal woman is known not for her limitations but her delicious desserts.

Reaching Out to Veterans

In Rosedale, men who participate in the Day Hab Without Walls Program at Keating Residence grow thyme, callalou, string beans and collard greens. Once a week, they help deliver the produce to their neighbors at Carlo’s Legacy, a Long Island-based nonprofit providing food and housing services to veterans and others who have fallen on hard times.

Like their Santulli Residence counterparts, Keating men not only grow and harvest the food but also get to deliver the produce into the hands of those who need it most.

In recent years, Mercy Home has sought ways to help residents explore their interests and engage in activities they want to do as well as give them a more visible community presence.

Programs such as this one give residents the opportunity to cultivate green thumbs and not only show their neighbors what they can do but also share the fruits of their labors.

“The mandate we have is to support them (residents) to be as independent as possible,” noted Sister Caroline.

“What they wanted was to have more community involvement. Now they have friends in the community and people know who they are.”

Since Plant-Grow-Give has successfully taken root, plans are already underway to branch out next summer. A $10,000 grant from the Sisters of Mercy Ministry Fund and a $7,000 environmental grant from the Mitsui & Co. USA Foundation will be used to expand the program to six residences, including the Addeo Residence in Old Mill Basin, and open a year-round greenhouse at Santulli Residence.


All photos are courtesy of Mercy Home.