While the pandemic causes some local businesses to wither, others are thriving. Empowering Gardens has been breaking sales records, as homebound residents turn to gardening as a hobby. Teen volunteers Meagan Murphy and her sister Laura have seen long lines waiting to enter the garden center. Inspired by the garden center’s success, the sisters are starting a teen board to encourage more young people to volunteer.

Meagan and Laura were born and raised in Forest Park, where their mother, Carole, introduced them to gardening. “We don’t have super green thumbs,” Meagan admitted, “But we love to garden.” This love carried over to Empowering Gardens, where they started volunteering in 2018. Laura recalls they came into the shop to meet the director of operations, Ana Solares, and the idea “sprouted.”

“We help Ana with anything she needs,” Meagan said, “We like to set up flower displays to make them more presentable.” Their current project is decorating a structure to display house plants. “Ana has a ton of ideas for beautifying a space for house plants,” Laura said, “We’ve been painting wooden shelves and decorating the outside. It’s a blessing to have meaningful work.”

The pandemic has enabled the sisters to devote more time to Empowering Gardens. “We started volunteering on weekends,” Meagan recalled. “Now we come every afternoon from 1 to 5,” Laura added, “There’s always something to do.” They not only help with the workload but give Solares and other staff members much-needed breaks.

They are very supportive of the garden center’s mission to employ workers with special needs. “Some with special needs don’t think they’re capable of doing this job,” Laura said, “but find out they can.” Meagan observed, “Customers are very respectful to the workers.” The workers, in turn, are very welcoming and serve customers with enthusiasm.

This spring, word-of-mouth spread about the garden center. The opening, though, was delayed due to coronavirus concerns.  So Director of Employment Richard Biggins helped distribute free house plants to Forest Parkers. Households received yellow flowers in pots, along with $5 coupons, to promote their Spring Open House on Saturday, April 18. Customers were grateful to see the garden center open.

As much as the sisters enjoy gardening, it’s not a typical activity for teens. “Gardening is not a focal point of a teen’s life,” Meagan admitted. “Some of my friends like to plant, but it’s not a subject of conversation.” The sisters plan to stir up conversation about gardening with their classmates. Meagan is a rising junior at Trinity High School while Laura is a soon-to-be sophomore.

“Empowering Gardens would be a good place for students to do their hours of service. It’s a great mission to support,” Laura suggested. “Gardening is a hobby that gets people outside and helps the environment.”

“We don’t want to just invite our close friends,” Meagan added, “We want to reach out to other schools. We plan to contact student councils at Proviso, Trinity and OPRF.” Laura is excited about forming a teen board and chairing monthly meetings. The board would not only recruit volunteers but would plan fundraisers.

“It’s a huge goal to achieve for Empowering Gardens to purchase the property and build a greenhouse,” Meagan said. “First we have to clear our plans with Rich and Ana,” Laura added. The sisters plan to give a presentation and hope to have the board functioning by this fall. They will continue to volunteer when Empowering Gardens moves indoors at the end of October. 

“The best thing to do is find the positive during the pandemic,” Laura declared, “like seeing that nature is thriving.”

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.