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ABC Helps Visually Impaired Students to Learn Gardening, Business
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ABC Helps Visually Impaired Students to Learn Gardening, Business

For two days this past June, ABC worked with the Austin-based Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) to help educate a group of high-school-aged students on the use, care, and importance of herbs and medicinal plants.

Their time in the ABC gardens was part of a larger program designed to help the students learn a coordinated set of skills and lessons such as teamwork, time management, and operating in a business environment. This program helps provide them with skills and knowledge they will need in future employment opportunities.

The class, made up of students from across Texas, decided on products they wished to create for sale and then went through the necessary steps to move from raw materials to a finished, marketable item. Since the students chose herbs, particularly aromatic herbs, ABC offered the use of its gardens and facilities so they could learn about different species and their uses, and plan products that could be made from them and then sold.

Gayle Engels, ABC’s education coordinator, helped arrange the visit and was impressed with the motivation of the participating students.

"The students were so engaged during both visits," she said. "You could tell they were interested in learning about the plants by their attention and questions."

They were most interested in aromatic herbs, as they intended to use such plants for their project to make teas, bath teas, and other herb-based products to advertise and sell.

"The students really enjoyed all the various smells and textures of the plants and learning about what they were used for," said Tish Smith, who taught the class at TSBVI, and contacted ABC to arrange the visit to the gardens.

These outreach programs provide some of the most integral lessons TSBVI instructors can offer to their students. Visually impaired students often miss out on incidental learning that children with normal vision pick up simply through watching others, Smith said. Educational programs that get these students out of the classroom to interact with the world help them master these skills and gain confidence. ABC offers its facilities as a place where students can learn useful information concerning herbs and gardening while incorporating important life lessons.

ABC hosted another group of students this past July from the Texas Alliance for Human Needs (TAHN). The group from TAHN, called Green Teens, visited the gardens to learn about organic gardening and other environmentally sensitive gardening practices. Much like the student project from TSBVI, the TAHN students used the information they gained at ABC to complete class projects, which involved the design of a community garden and organic and vegetable gardens.

When ABC moved its operations to the Case Mill Homestead in 1998, there were plans for regular community outreach programs that would interact with local schools to teach children how to grow and use medicinal plants. Such projects fit squarely under ABC’s mission of educating the public about herbs and their uses.

Smith and her class agreed the gardens and staff are well suited for teaching. "[ABC] has fabulous facilities," she said. "One of the girls mentioned that Gayle [Engels] was a really good teacher, which is pretty good coming from a high school student."

Yet, because of economic downturns in the herbal market, ABC has had to cut recurring community programs due to budget constraints, thus delaying opportunities to form a comprehensive educational curriculum.

"The Case Mill Homestead is great for working with the community," Engels said, "but we don’t have the time or the resources for such outreach programs."

Engels notes that under present financial conditions, funding for outreach educational projects must come from third parties, because state- and community-run entities such as TSBVI and local schools also lack the necessary funds to support regular ventures for their students.

Despite these constraints, ABC continues to interact with the community, and develop limited partnerships with local educational entities. And in that spirit, from August to May of 2004 ABC will host another group of TSBVI students who will work in the ABC gardens. This project will be more comprehensive than the most recent visit, as the students will visit on a regular basis to help with various projects and gain a more in-depth knowledge of herbs and gardening.

–Jon Lucksinger