A volunteer prepares the site. | Photo provided

It’s tragic that only 7 percent of those with mental and physical disabilities are gainfully employed. This problem is being addressed by the volunteers behind Empowering Gardens Inc., who have spent two years preparing to open their garden center on a former Christmas tree lot, west of Famous Liquors in Forest Park. 

The grand opening will be this Saturday, April 23, starting at 9 a.m., with Mayor Calderone cutting the ribbon. There will be plants, tools and gardening materials for sale and light refreshments served. 

Visitors will also get the chance to meet the principals behind Empowering Gardens, Richard Biggins, director of employment and Ana Solares, director of operations. Biggins noted that the 75 x 125-foot lot hasn’t had a permanent tenant in 15 years. 

“It was used by a Michigan woman,” he said, “who lived in the hut from Thanksgiving to Christmas, selling Christmas trees.” Seeing it as a good option to rent, Biggins and the other volunteers set about cleaning it up.

It was a big job. “We had the plants from hell coming through the gravel,” Biggins recalled. They swept away some nasty debris, laid down fresh gravel and restored the hut. Dick Schmidt, their volunteer “Renaissance man,” used broken dishes and tiles to decorate the hut with a colorful mosaic of potted plants. 

They’re also installing a brick patio and a small garden to spruce up the front. They plan to park a business trailer at the rear. But the centerpiece will be their year-round greenhouse. They have already modified the steel poles that will support the canopy, but Biggins confessed, “It will be a big chunk, $50-75 thousand to finish it.” When the garden center is completed, they hope it will become a successful, self-sustaining operation.

Solares said they’ll sell plants and flowers, as well as organic vegetables to local restaurants. 

“It will be exotic and fun,” she said. “I love plants. They don’t yell at you.” 

The native of Guatemala primarily wants to help families who have loved ones with disabilities. Though this is not an issue for her family, she knows what it’s like to be an outsider. When she came to the U.S., she struggled to learn English and adapt to American culture. 

For Biggins, the problems of people with disabilities hits home. In 1956, his younger sister, Jean, was born with Down Syndrome. There were almost no resources for people with mental disabilities back then. “My parents joined a group of parents who had children with Down Syndrome,” said Biggins. He and his seven siblings raised money for the group by selling fruitcakes. “My friends avoided me from Thanksgiving to Christmas, but we made enough money to hire a teacher in 1961.”

This parent group eventually developed into UCP Seguin, an organization in Cicero that helps children and adults with cognitive disabilities. That’s where Solares and Biggins met. She served five years as greenhouse and landscaping manager, while Biggins spent seven years as community employment manager. They decided to team up for Empowering Gardens Inc. two years ago and received pro bono legal help to set up their 501c3. 

“We’re not using government money,” Biggins said. “We’re relying on contributions from friends. We’re not beholden to anyone and we’re always looking for donations.” 

Their nonprofit status will also allow them to apply for grants. So far they have five people with disabilities set to be hired. 

“We can teach them to be punctual and business-like in their manner,” Biggins said, “We can train them for a career.” 

Besides retail, Empowering Gardens Inc. will offer horticultural classes and various therapies.

It’s been a lot of work so far and no one has been paid, but Solares and Biggins see a bright future ahead. 

“The village of Forest Park has been great,” Biggins said. “Steve Glinke, Mayor Calderone and Tim Gillian guided us through the permit process.” 

It’s only natural that village leaders would want to see something permanent and empowering at 7730 Madison St. Those who want to support this new venture can go to their website, www.empoweringgardensinc.org, or visit them on Facebook. 

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.