Leroy, 73, sits in his wheelchair toward the back of a bustling crowd on a summer evening at Congress Square Park. He and his wife Beatrice live next door in Congress Square Plaza. When Friends of Congress Square Park came in search of volunteers three years ago, they didn't think twice.
Leroy and Beatrice became “keepers of the park.” They open and close Congress Square each morning and night, set up for events, and serve as representatives when something occurs that compromises the welcoming appeal of the space at one of Portland's busiest intersections.
The son of a Maine Lighthouse Keeper in Lubec, Leroy volunteers 20 hours a week in the park, and it seems a natural fit. Leroy and Beatrice knew one another as children and married just after high school. Leroy then joined the marine corps and they raised four children together. “I was in the military almost 21 years” he tells me, “until the accident.” He gestures to his legs which now rest on wheelchair footplates. When he was 37, Leroy and his wife were in a traumatic automobile accident that left them both in wheelchairs. “We just continued to look forward,” he tells me, “never back.”
He talks about his wife’s resilient spirit and enduring love of community service. “She has a wonderful personality, is always easy going and kind to everyone.” His smile softens and his eyes fall to his hands at rest in his lap, spotted with age. “We’re both old now, you know, but to me, she’s still just as beautiful.”
“These events couldn’t happen without the help and participation of people like Leroy and Beatrice,” Nina tells me, her paintbrush splashing teal across the front of the newly assembled garden bed in Congress Square Park. “These beds were designed with them in mind, in fact. They’re 30 inches tall, to be wheelchair accessible.”
Nina is a MSW student at the University of New England, board member of FoCSP, and one of the organizers of the evening’s event — part of a four-week intergenerational gardening series occurring throughout July that will culminate as an art exhibit on First Friday, August 3, where activities will range from planting seedlings to learning Buddhist mandala-making traditions.
“Creating intergenerational space is something Corey (co-organizer and UNE MSW student) and I both feel passionately about.” Corey comes from a family of gardeners and is well connected in Portland’s gardening community. She’s interned with Cultivating Community and served as a Garden Educator at Reiche school, where she co-led their Roots to Shoots Gardening camp. “We felt bringing together children from the surrounding neighborhoods and elders from the many diverse senior residences in the neighborhood through gardening and art would be a perfect way to create an all-ages dialogue about community and the cycles of life.”
Nina and Corey are both pursuing the Training in Aging and Diversity (TRIAD) certificate at UNE’s School of Social Work (where this writer works as a student and faculty support specialist). TRIAD students undergo specialized training in working with diverse aging populations while they collaborate to create solutions that better serve their needs. As TRIAD is a HRSA funded project, students receive a $10,000 stipend toward their studies.
Corey has been conducting research on the impact of community gardening in the Portland immigrant and refugee communities. “With the growing number of displaced people in the world today, there’s a great need for culturally-sensitive programming,” she tells me.Community gardening provides an opportunity to engage in a familiar and meaningful activity while individuals can also reap the culinary benefits of fresh, culturally-significant produce. Gardening can also serve as a bridge, helping to integrate the past and present and provide a conceptual link between former and new homes. Nina and Corey aim to expand this research through incorporating additional studies in intergenerational experiences.
Nasir’s comments substantiate Corey’s findings: “[Gardening] is our family tradition. That’s how I know everything. My grandpa, my father, my brother, all relatives — we are farmers.” Originally from Bangladesh, Nasir has lived in Portland 10 years, never without a garden. He lists the many vegetables he now grows in his Harbor Terrace plot: eggplant, swiss chard, tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach, kale.” His eyes widen as he tells me about his country’s beloved red spinach. “Lal shak in my language. It’s everywhere in my country!” He tells me how comforting (and economical) it is to be able to grow this himself. He describes his daily garden rituals and the rhythmic calm they yield. “Gardening is my heart, really” he says, his fingers clutching his breast.
Nasir is a “foster grandparent” at Reiche and volunteers with their Roots to Shoots Gardening Camp. Through this program, he met Lola, a fourth grader at Reiche and also an avid gardener. “[Gardening] pulls you into a whole new world,” she tells me, tossing her bangs from her eyes. “Digging in the dirt and planting, it’s just calming. It puts joy in my life.” She lists the plants she’s learned to grow: pumpkin, kale, chives, spinach, succulents, lemon balm, chocolate mint. “It’s lovely to watch their transformation,” she says, raising pinched fingers before her eyes. “It all starts from this one little seed.”
“Intergenerational space is so rarely created today,” says Nina, painting the garden bed. “We're truly missing out on a golden opportunity to learn from each other and gain a deeper perspective on what really matters. We hope to bring light to the value of sharing space and building community that's inclusive of all ages and abilities through this project.”
Amber-orange light cuts horizontally across the park as people place painted stones in the garden bed, now freshly painted teal. Leroy emerges from behind the crowd and, from his wheelchair, quietly fastens the chairs and tables for safekeeping through the night. He will return in the morning alongside the morning gulls and pigeons to open the space again anew.
“Discovering Abilities in the Garden: An Intergenerational Garden & Art Experience” | Aug 3 | Fri 6-8 pm | Congress Square Park | http://congresssquarepark.org