Italian Home for Children: innovative instruction with new urban garden

Printed from:

It is a hot and humid sunny day in late August as a small group of children come running outside. They are excited to get their hands dirty and have fun picking bright red tomatoes off the vine, scavenging for sweet juicy strawberries, and composting old fruit and vegetables. This small urban garden at the Italian Home for Children in the Jamaica Plain area of Boston enables children to acquire life skills and gain confidence while they eat the fresh food they have been growing all the summer.

“This could be the thing that connects us all,” said Jason Torres, director of foundation relations and one of the chief architects of the garden project. The Italian Home for Children hopes that the garden will bring community members and families together and build lasting relationships.

The home is also a community center that focuses on mental health while working to create an environment in which children, adults, and families are embraced and feel empowered to reach their full potential. It provides residential and day treatment for boys and girls with emotional challenges between the ages of 4 and 14, with the goal of reuniting children with their own or alternative families, and helping people in at-risk situations.


“When you think about both extreme moments of happiness and extreme moments of crisis and sadness, they all center around food,” said Imari Paris Jeffries the CEO of the Italian Home for Children. This reflection made him wonder, “How do we tie this connection between mental health and food?” Both Jeffries and Torres believe the garden is the perfect solution.

The new urban garden was built at the beginning of the summer, and helps children see the correlation between the food they eat and their physical fitness, and its direct impact on how they feel.

Jeffries believes that this non-traditional project is a means to move mental health forward in a way that is accessible to everyone. “You don’t need a guy in an argyle sweater in a leather ottoman to have therapy,” said Jeffries. “Being outside in the soil, feeling good about what you are growing, and also then putting it in your body and all of a sudden feeling better — even if you don’t know why — is as much a part of mental health as to what we see on T.V. and Toni Soprano going to see his shrink.”

This year the goals for the garden were to start planting fruits and vegetables including watermelons, strawberries, tomatoes, zucchini, lettuce, and radishes to expose the kids to the farm. This fall they plan to create a curriculum that includes the garden.

The administrators also plan to collect data showing how the garden affects the childrens’ behavioral and mental health, and how the benefits of being in the garden positively influence their other challenges, such as catching up a grade level in school or trying to create family bonds. They hope to have viable data that systematically proves what they have already seen in practice. Torres said, “I feel like it does. We’re going to set out to prove it.”

Looking even further into the future, the Italian Home for Children hopes to expand their outdoor area so that more people in the community become involved. They plan to create nature walks that pass through the property and also build a farmer’s market to entice passersby to stop and learn more about their programs. Jeffries said, “Think about the soil as our canvas and the colors of our vegetables as the paints and the pallets.”

Torres and Jeffries had a conversation with a young person who said, “Church is supposed to be safe and sometimes it’s not safe. A lot of things happen in church that shouldn’t happen. They say school is supposed to be safe and sometimes kids get hurt in schools, but the farm, being outdoors growing my own food, that’s safe.”

The Italian Home for Children is looking to create a safe space where young people can find a respite from the stress of urban life and their troubled families, while taking ownership of their situation and sourcing their own healthful food.

“They are making bonds. They are re-connecting,” said Torres who witnessed a daughter showing off the garden to her mother, who was visiting her there. When the mother told her daughter that she was proud of what she was accomplishing, it was one step closer for the two of them to repair what was lost in the past. Torres continued, “They’re repairing all of these bonds that were damaged because of fear or violence — all of this stuff, and it was done without a clinician, it was done without formal therapy, it was done without anything other than a safe place for a child and a parent to connect over a shared experience.”

Contact Beth Treffeisen at [email protected]