In times of hardship, we often turn to Mother Nature for consolation. We seek for some greenery, a breath of fresh air, and most importantly, serenity. Our tendency to get back to nature is precisely the reason why agro-healing – agricultural activity that enhances one’s physical and mental health – has been on the rise recently. A social entrepreneur, Park Kyung-Bok from The Garden Project introduces his program for Seoul’s senior citizens to tend kitchen gardens for their “healing.”
The Garden Project is a social enterprise that engages in environment-interactive programs for those neglected and underprivileged, including gardening programs, forest therapy, and rainwater recycling. The beginnings of The Garden Project date back to 2010. The inspiration for his Garden Project came from a San Francisco-based nonprofit “The Garden Project”, an organization that seeks to impact the recidivism rates of former inmates by providing them with job training and support. Its participants grow organic vegetables for donation and plant trees on the streets of San Francisco.
Having worked in the field of landscape architecture for nearly three decades, Park decided to adopt the name and the idea of using agriculture and horticulture for rehabilitation purposes. At its inception, The Garden Project faced obstacle after obstacle. “The idea was new in Korea, so there lacked establishments for treatments employing kitchen gardens,” explains Park. In fact, while psychotherapy through horticulture was common, treatment through kitchen gardening was not.
Yet, Park saw the value of vegetable gardens and wanted to bring them to the center of his project. “There is no need to commute to the suburbs for forests or farms,” he explains, “and the gardens provide locally-grown, healthy food.” The Garden Project is Park’s own approach towards addressing environmental and social problems.
What is more, Park saw that tending gardens could enhance emotional well-being, heighten the value of humans, and restore humanity that had been damaged. He says that vegetable gardening is no different from climbing a mountain or taking a walk in the woods. “We gain positive energy and we become healthier,” Park says excitedly; “tending vegetable gardens has exactly the same effect, only at a closer proximity.”
It took three years to build the foundation, and the first program kicked off earlier this year. As a part of the program, Park makes regular, weekly visits to a nursing home for those with Alzheimer’s and together tends the gardens. The Garden Project started the program in September. “The whole program lasts for 24 weeks altogether, but is divided into two 12-week-long programs, one in spring and one in autumn,” Park says. “It involves professionals that have been trained in agricultural psychotherapy.”
The current program takes place at a nursing home located in Gwangjin-gu. Experts who have been involved in horticultural treatment participate as instructors for each program, and senior citizens are engaged in every part of the agricultural process. “The program begins with sowing the seeds, and ends with reaping what was sowed,” Park explains. Radishes, lettuce, and cabbages are vegetables commonly grown in the kitchen gardens. “The harvesting of good crops, however, is not the key point,” Park continues. He emphasizes that the essence of his project is to better the mental health of those who are very vulnerable.
How does the social entrepreneur judge the success of his first vegetable garden program then? “More than successful,” Park says proudly. “Realistically, it is difficult to measure and quantify the satisfaction the patients feel towards the program,” he adds, “but I see that the participants are really happy.” Park instead surveyed instructors and nursing home staff, and they said that they, too, have witnessed the change in their emotional well-being.
As modest as he is, Park says that his program is not without room for improvement. He wants to systemize the evaluation process from the point of view of the participants and the instructors; and he is constantly questioning his program – whether indoor gardening in times of rain is sufficient, whether it is better to tend the gardens in the morning or the afternoon, and more. Park also has plans to create gardening programs in which the young and the old can mingle.
For his social enterprise, The Garden Project, Park has bigger and more ambitious plans. “I seek to establish a system for social enterprises and to serve and to contribute to society,” he says. He wants to expand his social enterprise and create fifty social franchises in Korea’s five metropolitan cities, and fifteen around the world. As a franchisor, Park will transfer his ideas, in particular his gardening programs, to young and aspiring college students and help them establish their own social enterprises. Promoting socially beneficial ends instead of chasing after money and profits, Park is one entrepreneur that today’s society desperate needs.