Volume 14, Issue 48 ~ November 30 - December 6, 2006

Poinsettias with a Story

The Christmas flowers of Providence Center are nurtured in love

by Valerie Lester

In a season where poinsettias are both essential and ubiquitous, the poinsettias of Providence Center are something special. They’re poinsettias with a story, poinsettias nurtured in love.

Providence Center’s 1,000 poinsettias are large, extravagant and brilliantly colored, in five hues — ranging from red, to pink to marbled cream with pink centers, to white to mixed red and white.

Even better than the poinsettias are the gardeners who nurture them.

If you’re over 21 and one of those people euphemistically called special, the world is not your oyster. Public schools have done all they must for you, and the next step is uncharted territory.

That’s where Providence Center steps in. The lives of some 450 special Anne Arundelians revolve around the 45-year-old Providence Center, in Arnold, where day by day they find rides and recreation, job training and jobs.

For special people who otherwise might not have a job, Providence Center offers a woodshop program, a pottery program, and Providence Employee Services, which provides training for work in the community. And, of course, there is the horticulture program with its poinsettias and more.

Quiet, loamy, forgiving and full of hope, Providence Center’s greenhouses provide work, real work.

The Gardeners of Providence Center

The greenhouses hum with activity, and retail sales are booming. In May, the program netted over $10,000. December’s poinsettias alone might bring in another $10,000 in one of the year’s biggest sales months, rivaling spring plant sales in April and May. Greens, wreaths and Christmas trees add to the total.

Chrysanthemums have just had their day. Come spring, bedding plants and hanging baskets, herbs and vegetables, most of them from seed, will spill out of the greenhouses.

In December, poinsettias, greens and Christmas trees fill the greenhouses. The poinsettias have been grown from seedlings since September, when they were purchased as tiny plugs.

Among the couple dozen gardeners who have helped along these blatant red and green holiday blooms are Teresa Johns and Natalie Rickert.

Teresa, a 44-year-old, curly haired brunette with a knock-out smile, whose youthful looks belie her age, has worked at Providence Center for 10 years. She lives with her sister, her niece and their two gray cats, Melville and Tinker. Her speech is easily comprehensible, and she is probably capable of working outside the center. But she enjoys her job in the greenhouses so much that she does not want to move.

Natalie, 23, has been at Providence Center for two years. She lives at home with her parents, sister and their amiable little dog, Cakey. Natalie, with Downs Syndrome, has a harder time speaking than her friend, who often interprets for her. But Natalie has no trouble projecting her sunny nature.

Part of the appeal is friendship. “I love Natalie,” said Teresa, patting her on the arm and making her laugh. They are proud of each other and the work they do together in the greenhouses.

As well as one another, the women both have admirers in the horticulture program, two men — both live at the Gallagher Residential Home for Men — who watch out for them and enjoy spending time with them.

All in a Day’s Work

The work they do is another satisfaction.

Each day, Teresa, Natalie and the other gardeners come by van to Providence Center from their homes. They go out to the greenhouses at 9am to work preparing soil, filling pots, sowing seeds, propagating and dividing plants. They take a half-hour break at 10:30am.

Lunch is served at 1pm, when the work day ends. After lunch, they socialize before the vans return to take them home.

Money is another satisfaction. Each worker earns a wage, varying with the difficulty of the job and how much they can accomplish during the day. Most have an appreciation of the value of money, the great motivator.

In off season, the gardeners also make plant roulette wheels for fund raisers for groups like the Elks, the Moose Lodge and crab and oyster fests.

The most able of the gardeners work in lawn-maintenance crews. One crew takes care of all the Providence Center grounds. Another hires out into the community, where they maintain lawns and gardens, mostly of private residences. Landscaping, both at the Center and out in the community, has the highest job value, earning minimum wage.

Most days their work is routine.

Once or twice in a career, however, a day’s work is a real adventure.

Sometimes a Bright Idea

Horticulture production manager Leslie Mathieson Seibel wanted to take Providence Center’s greenhouses farther, into a paying proposition. Visiting out in the community to learn about nursery production and sales, she took the Center to the crest of a wave.

Students in the Anne Arundel Community College wetlands ecology program would collect seeds in their natural environments. Providence Center’s gardeners would then propagate and nurture them. Providence Center’s horticulture program’s specialty became the propagation of native Maryland plants, including marsh grasses that are invaluable for stabilizing shorelines.

It wasn’t long before the center’s plants were being purchased by individual gardeners and organizations like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Anne Arundel County, even buyers from out of state.

That specialization gave Teresa and Natalie their greatest adventure, taking them from their sheltered greenhouse across the Chesapeake to Barren Island.

Teresa and Natalie’s Great Adventure

There’s a war being fought on Chesapeake Bay islands, with erosion the attacker and an army of conservationists and engineers — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA, the Maryland Conservation Corps — the defenders. To that battle Providence Center brought reinforcements: native grasses that they had propagated themselves, grasses that could take root on the endangered littoral of Barren Island and stabilize it. Teresa and Natalie signed on as Providence Center’s emissaries, delivering precious grasses to the National Aquarium of Baltimore’s project to restore the wetlands on Barren Island

Early one fall morning a year ago, they set off from Providence Center with Seibel and Lisa Gulden, the horticulture project manager, bearing a picnic lunch and 400 units of marsh grasses. The four women drove east across the Bay Bridge and then south on Route 50 toward Cambridge. From Cambridge they picked up smaller roads leading south toward the mouth of the Honga River and the causeway to Hooper Island. From Hooper Island, they took a thrilling launch ride across to Barren Island.

Barren Island is well named. It is treeless, flat, sandy and uninhabited — by people anyway. Shore birds love it. So did Natalie and Teresa. Eager to set to work, and with the help of Seibel and Gulden, they first laid a grid on the sand to ensure that the plants would be properly spaced. Then they planted a tuft of marsh grass in each space, tucking it in carefully. When one grid was complete, they would flip the frame over and begin work on the adjacent grid. The sky was a cheerful blue, but the day was hot and the terrain muddy.

“It was hard work,” Teresa said. “But I like hard work.”

“Fun!” Natalie chimed in.

After planting all 400 grasses, eating their picnic and frolicking on the sand, the group made the boat journey back to the mainland and the long drive back to Arnold.

Another Day, Another Flower

“I want to do it again,” Teresa told me, recounting her great shared adventure. Natalie gave the thumbs-up sign.

“Natalie, you’re great,” said Teresa, patting her on the arm again.

Until their next great adventure comes, Teresa and Natalie have the day-to-day satisfaction of shared work enlivened by the cycles of floral life and the brilliant results of their labor.

Their satisfaction explains why the poinsettias they nurtured are so special.

Buy Poinsettias and Greens

On Saturday, December 2, shop for live reds and greens to trim your home for the holidays. Find garlands, poinsettias, trees and more brought up in the greenhouse by Teresa, Natalie and their co-workers. Also browse crafts, pottery and more for holiday giving. Lunch sold by outside chefs. 9am–2pm @ Providence Center, 370 Shore Acres Rd., Arnold: 410-757-7800.

Inclement weather postpones the Gathering of the Greens to December 9.

Help Gather the Greens

Also on December 2, you can help Providence Center staff and other community volunteers pull off one of Chesapeake Country’s great holiday events. Help is needed in all areas including selling greenhouse inventory and crafts, making bows, packaging poinsettias, cutting and loading Christmas trees and set-up and break-down: 410-757-7800 x 110; abullen@providencecenter.com.

Valerie Lester is the author of two books, Fasten Your Seat Belts! History and Heroism in the Pan Am Cabin and Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens. Her last story for Bay Weekly was Snatched! The story behind the story of how Sinbad the Chihuahua escaped the talons of death (Vol. xiv, No. 12: March 23).

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