Magazine article Aging Today

Tending Gardens, Tending to Troubled Souls

Magazine article Aging Today

Tending Gardens, Tending to Troubled Souls

Article excerpt

Working as a costume designer for more than 30 years-the latter half of that for "Late Night with Conan O'Brien"-Deborah Shaw decided to leave the show when in 2009 it moved from New York to Los Angeles. Her husband's job was in New York and she was ready for a change. After taking a year to decide what to do, Shaw soon focused on volunteering in a prison.

"I'd long been interested in the criminal justice system," says Shaw, 61. "It started several years ago when I read a book titled Random Family, the true story of a large extended family in the Bronx, most of whose male members had been incarcerated. I realized then that we have a correctional system with little or no correction."

Shaw contacted Rikers Island to explore volunteer opportunities. Rikers is the second largest prison complex in the United States, housing about 12,000 inmates, most of whom are there awaiting trial. Also an avid gardener, when Shaw discovered that Rikers had a highly regarded horticultural therapy program for inmates, she knew that was where she wanted to volunteer.

"I come from a family of community activists," she says, "and the Rikers program provided a way for me to be of service to others, in addition to pursuing a passion."

The program director required visitors take a course in horticultural therapy before visiting the prison garden. Based upon an ancient practice that uses live plants and the growing environment to heal and rehabilitate people, the course Shaw took was offered at the New York Botanical Garden.

When she was finally able to visit the Rikers garden, she was amazed at its beauty. "It's a 2-acre oasis of vegetables, flowers, trees and a pond with fish, inside a desolate 400-acre prison complex," she says. The therapy program hadn't traditionally used volunteers, but Shaw "pestered" the director to take her on. Now there is at least one volunteer working per day. …

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