When Chase’s mother died, he moved in with his brother and sister-in-law. He didn’t have a job, and he spent his days alone, often wandering the streets in Tulsa, Okla. It wasn’t until Chase, who has a developmental disability and whose name has been changed for privacy, started working at A New Leaf in Tulsa that things began to change for him.
“I met the sister-in-law about six months after he moved in with them,” Mary Ogle, A New Leaf’s CEO, says. “When I found out about Chase, I said Chase should come and get a job with us.”
Chase was 20 years old when he started at A New Leaf, and he quickly became more independent after beginning work and finding new passions. He rode the bus to work, and he fell in love with flowers. He stopped wandering around town during the day. Every Saturday, he would ask his sister-in-law to drive him to the library to learn more about horticulture, and he would read about how to efficiently take care of plants.
“Chase went from being a part-time employee to a full-time employee,” Ogle says. “He was just 100 percent different. Instead of meandering around town all day, he was gainfully employed and earning a living. He knew more about those plants and flowers than any of my staff.”
Chase is one of the 327 clients A New Leaf serves. The nonprofit was founded in 1979 and provides vocational training for adults with developmental disabilities. After starting with one greenhouse and only a few clients, it quickly grew.
The organization now has a farm, six greenhouses, a wholesale division and two retail garden centers where the adults with different disabilities who may not have opportunities elsewhere can come to work and be around beautiful plants.
“Horticulture therapy has always been a leading therapy when working with people with developmental disabilities because [it] focuses on an increase in their cognitive abilities,” Ogle says. “It helps them with their fine motor skills and just the peaceful aspects we all get from being in our gardens.”
Ogle says A New Leaf operates its retail garden centers just like any other, and buyers can find annuals, perennials, herbs, vegetables, houseplants and anything else they may be looking for. The only difference is that 95 percent of the products in the garden centers are grown and made by individuals with developmental disabilities. The clients work to plant and cultivate thousands of plants throughout the year.
“We feel we offer a really great product,” says Ogle, who has been working with A New Leaf for six and a half years. “We are as competitive as the for-profit garden centers in our community. The only difference is when you buy a plant from A New Leaf, you’re helping to employ adults with disabilities.”
In 2016, only about 18 percent of persons with a disability were employed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. At A New Leaf, however, adults with disabilities can work on the farm, with the wholesale division or in the retail garden centers or greenhouses. Ogle pairs clients based on their talents and strengths.
“Some of our clients are really good at making arrangements like putting plants in bowls and containers, so we have a group of clients that do that and then we sell those arrangements to local flower shops in all of northeast Oklahoma,” Ogle says.
A New Leaf’s farm, called Blooming Acres, operates similarly to community supported agriculture, Ogle says. Working on three acres, the team grows fresh produce, and people from the community can buy shares to receive what’s harvested at the farm straight to their doors.
“Our clients are being employed [and] working in the farm. They’re planting the seeds, watering, weeding, harvesting and keeping pests away,” Ogle says. “Then they package the produce and deliver it to the people who buy the shares.”
With about half of the three acres, the team grows produce that is later donated to local food deserts where there is a lack of fresh produce in the area. A New Leaf has given to the Tulsa area in different ways. After a break-in occurred at one of its retail garden centers, the community was able to do the same for A New Leaf.
On June 3, vandals damaged about $25,000 worth of product, which Ogle says was worth about $52,000 in retail sales. They turned over tables and uprooted and stepped on hundreds of plants at the garden center. About three-fourths of the plants were destroyed, and nothing was stolen.
The day after the break-in, A New Leaf sold the damaged product at discounted prices.
“The next day the community came in and bought all the damaged products,” Ogle says. “We sold big flats of products for $5. We figured some gardeners could probably get the plants to survive.”
On June 10, the store had its official reopening after local nurseries donated to A New Leaf to help replenish its product. Ogle said people from all over Northeast Oklahoma, which she calls “Green Country,” showed up in support them.
“In the meantime, Green Country just came out to support us financially, and we received over $100,000 in donations that came out as people showing that people with disabilities, they honor and respect them,” Ogle says. “I think it was a good message to the vandals that you can try to take someone with a disability down, but they’re going to come back twice as strong.”
Ogle said despite any challenges A New Leaf may face, she continues to tell its story and help everyone better understand adults with disabilities.
“My typical day is telling this story so people know people with disabilities have the same wants, desires, interests that we have,” Ogle says. “They all go to high school and graduate from high school, and they are active members of society. We have to engage them and allow them to be contributing members of society.”