Every Wednesday morning, a bus pulls up in front of Better Block’s Learning Garden in Oak Cliff and a group of volunteers climb out. They are members of The Well Community who go weekly to work in the garden: pulling weeds, watering flowers, making compost and more. It’s a small commitment with a big impact on The Well members who live with mental illnesses and, because of stigma, have limited opportunities to be a part of the larger community.
However, at the Learning Garden, their efforts are not only welcomed, but are enjoyed. “I want Well members to feel embraced when they come here,” says Victoria, who oversees the garden and manages the volunteers, “so I love getting to know them and listening to their stories.”
Better Block Foundation is a nonprofit group that educates, equips and empowers communities to promote the growth of healthy and vibrant neighborhoods across the country. While it’s a national organization, it was founded right here in Oak Cliff, where its Learning Garden is located. Several Well members began volunteering last April, and since then it’s become the highlight of their week.
“I love going to the garden,” says Delores, who has been a member of The Well for many years and frequently volunteers with Better Block. “I love plants and flowers and things like that. I’m an outdoors person.”
Volunteering at the garden reminds Delores of her childhood growing up in the countryside outside Jackson, Mississippi, and of her brother, who used to work in a flower shop. She also enjoys spending time with her friend, Rita, another member from The Well who regularly joins her at Better Block. “She’s fun to be with,” says Rita, who enjoys the garden because it’s quiet and peaceful, and she gets to make something beautiful with her hands.
Volunteering in the garden isn’t just a fun time, however. It also matters. “Meaningful use of time is actually a therapeutic experience for our members, who are limited in opportunities to engage with people in the area and do something positive for others,” says Alice Zaccarello, Executive Director of The Well Community.
“There are many health benefits associated with gardening, whether it be physical, mental or emotional,” Victoria of Better Block explains. “Getting your hands dirty makes you happy thanks to tiny bacteria living in the soil that go through the skin, making serotonin. It’s an easy form of exercise and just nice to be outside sweating.” Plus, it’s an opportunity for healthy social interaction, she says. The members chat with one another while they work, laughing and sharing in each other’s lives.
The volunteer work doesn’t just benefit Well members, though. It’s also helpful to Better Block and the neighborhood of Oak Cliff. By giving their time in the garden, Well members are participating in a beautification project that benefits everyone who drives by the garden or stops in for a visit.
“I love helping people,” says Delores. “God put it in my heart to help people out.” It’s also a joy to the employees at Better Block, like Victoria, who spend time with The Well members. “Sometimes when we stop and take a tomato break, they’ll ask for pepper,” she says. “We laugh and smile, and then they’ll hop in the bus till next week. Having them on the team has truly been a joy.”
Want to donate or serve?
Volunteering at The Well is a small commitment that has a great impact on the lives of those who deal with mental illness in Oak Cliff. We are always looking for new volunteers to help serve at Thursday Night Life or our other events. Think you might be interested? Don’t hesitate to call or email! We would love to answer your questions and find the best place for you to use your unique gifts.