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The temperature hovered in the single digits and there was a blistering breeze last Thursday morning, but inside Bend High School’s Dreamhouse, it felt like summer.
The sweet smell of basil perfumed the air. Tomato vines curled down from hanging planters. Ladybugs crawled just about everywhere.
For life skills teacher Robert Tadjiki, this serene scene is what he’s been working toward for seven years.
“This project almost died a couple of times,” Tadjiki said. “But I’m the kind of person that when I believe something is going to happen, I’m a nonstop believer. I keep fighting with the belief that it’s going to work.”
It’s been a year and a half since Bend High’s greenhouse first opened its doors, and the place is thriving: both its numerous plants, and the students who care for them. The greenhouse, which has been named the “Dreamhouse,” was the vision of Tadjiki, who started fundraising for the greenhouse project in 2006 with the intention of providing the school’s developmentally and intellectually disabled students a therapeutic place to cultivate skills.
About 25 of the school’s life skills students work in the greenhouse on a daily basis, caring for the 100 or so plants, which are mostly basil. Students spend their mornings planting, watering, fertilizing and harvesting the herb. Students also package the harvested clippings, and then twice a week deliver the packages to local groceries like Newport Market and C.E. Lovejoy’s, where they are sold. Money from the sales go back into the greenhouse, and also pay for life skills student’s field trips.
Donavon Johnson, a sophomore, is in his second year working in the greenhouse. Before Bend High, Donavon had never worked with plants. Now he’s one of the group leaders and spends most mornings in the building caring for and harvesting basil.
One of Donavon’s jobs is also to find and weed out which plants are doing poorly. He said you can tell by the stem which ones aren’t doing well: healthy plants have soft green stems, while unhealthy ones have stems more reminiscent of a hard twig.
Heather Lueck, an educational assistant who works with the life skills group in the greenhouse, said Donavon’s gotten so good at spotting dying and diseased plants that when the group has visited local gardens, Donavon can pick out the plants that need attention.
“Most of these students come here and they’ve never grown anything before,” Lueck said. “But they come in here and once they start growing, they’re so excited about it. I love watching that excitement blossom for them.”
But not everything about the greenhouse process has been easy. Last year, many of the basil plants perished, as both students and teachers learned tough lessons in gardening. The greenhouse’s caretakers solved those issues, and most of the plants are now happily thriving. The group even has plans to plant 6,000 hanging baskets and sell them at Ace Hardware around Mother’s Day.
Thanks to the money from the greenhouse, the students are heading over to Portland later this month to catch a Portland Trail Blazers basketball game.
Before the greenhouse, Tadjiki said field trips like these were rare.
“The district isn’t able to pay for even one field trip,” Tadjiki said. “How are we supposed to teach students how to become independent citizens in the community unless they’re able to go out into that community? That’s really the way that those with intellectual disabilities learn — when they go outside of their norm and do something different.”
Thanks to the greenhouse, students are continually getting opportunities to go out into the community, both when they deliver plants and when they get to go on field trips.
Tadjiki said the greenhouse is beginning to accomplish everything he hoped it would for his students. He said some of the most meaningful moments have been when he’s witnessed a previously agitated student find a moment of peace while working with the plants or when he’s watched students develop independence through the skills they’ve learned.
Tadjiki has even more plans for the program. He wants to build garden beds outside the greenhouse, where students can grow vegetables. These vegetables can then be donated to needy families in the community through local churches.
“I want our students to learn that skill of giving to other people,” Tadjiki said. “So often, people are usually taking care of them. But learning to give is such an empowering skill to have.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0354, firstname.lastname@example.org .