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NIAGARA FALLS – The seeds being planted by a Falls church’s gardening project are expected to reap more than just the bounty of a summer harvest. They also aim to fight the stigma of mental illness.

“Gardens of Compassion,” which runs from mid-April to October is a partnership between St. James United Methodist Church and Community Missions to provide an opportunity for volunteer gardeners to have regular contact with individuals living with mental illness.

“I wanted to find some way to address the stigma surrounding mental illness,” said St. James United Methodist Pastor Daryl Bennett. “We are all God’s children – we are sisters and brothers – and need to show love towards one another.”

Last year, the church started the garden as a way to provide fresh vegetables for the Community Mission’s Soup Kitchen.

“My love is gardening. I’m an organic kind of person,” said Bennett.

This spring the church garden is being expanded.

Clients from Community Missions can sign up for his or her own raised garden plot, Once a week each gardener will tend to the plot alongside church members and community volunteers. During the rest of the week members of St. James will take care of daily watering and other garden care.

When harvest time comes the gardeners will have the healthy produce they grew themselves to add to their tables. Any excess harvest will be used at the Community Soup Kitchen at the Mission.

Cornell Cooperative Extension, another partner in the project, is providing starter plants and seeds to gardeners as part of their Healthy Places project. The extension will also conduct educational seminars on gardening and nutrition classes for Mission clients and church.

Bennett said the garden will help bring church members and clients with mental illness together to understand each other.

Her goal is for church members to become more comfortable with people who have mental health issues. She believes by working side by side in a garden with them will promote an understanding.

In addition, she believes gardening will also promote a more healthy lifestyle, with fresh air and fresh vegetables, for all who participate.

“Ministry is always a two-way street. It’s not always how they benefit, but how we benefit by learning from each other,” Bennett said.

Rev. Mark Breese, Community Missions’ agency minister and director of community partnerships, said mentally ill people are treated as “modern-day lepers.” His agency serves mentally ill outpatient clients, as well as clients in three residential sites, two in Niagara Falls and one in North Tonawanda.

“People simply do not understand and put their blinders on,” Breese said. “There is a notion of fear around mental illness. People are uncomfortable and afraid of, ‘Is that crazy person going to hurt me?’”

But he said most people with mental illnesses are not violent and one in five people have suffered from a mental illness or mood disorder themselves or know a friend or family member who has.

“We just happen to hear about the worst case scenarios. And the vast number of these worst case scenarios could have been prevented if people had had adequate treatment,” Breese said.

Bennett agreed, noting that more than 90 percent of people who are walking the street homeless are people with mental illnesses.

“A lot of those are people who have served our country. We forget about that,” Bennett said. “We need to be there for each other. Blaming is not helpful.”

Robyn Krueger, Executive Director of Community Missions agreed that the stigma of mental illness can be a huge challenge for those who live with mental illness.

When you work with someone who has a mental illness you see they have all the same hopes, dreams and aspirations as ourselves, but just more of a challenge of getting there,” Breese said. “The only way to see this is by educating yourselves about this.”

The new collaboration between the two groups began this past week – even before a shovel was put in the ground for spring planting – with a presentation about mental illness awareness given by Dr. Richard Primo, a long time consulting psychologist for Community Missions, who urged attendees to rethink negative stereotypes they may associate with mental illness.

Bennett acknowledged that in Niagara Falls, with its history with sites like Love Canal, soil can be a problem. She pointed out that the Portage Road church is surrounded by power wires and is sits adjacent to a landfill.

To counter any potential problems with soil, the garden is made up of raised beds instead. “They are not in the ground,” Krueger said. “So this makes it accessible to more people,” Bennett said of the church gardens.

As part of the gardening project, Community Missions will present an upcoming program called, “Caring for Creation” that presents the topic from an ecumenical and interfaith perspective.

The St. James UMC is located at 4661 Portage Road next to the Niagara Falls High School.

Anyone who would like to donate gardening tools, plants, lumber or other items to help promote the garden’s mission or participate is asked to contact Breese at 285-3403, ext. 2259 or at mbreese@communitymissions.org. Donations can also be made to St. James United Methodist Church by contacting the church at 297-6421 or church email at: pastorbennett@stjamesniagara.org.