Ithaca Children’s Garden: a place for all

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The Ithaca Children’s Garden, free to visit all year round, wants to make outdoor play an accessible part of every resident, and visitor’s, life. With the help of a grant established by a dedicated former Ithaca resident, that goal has been expanded to help local refugee families access the programs at the garden that do cost money.


For years, Katherine Doob worked at Cornell University creating programming that provided access and inclusivity for various underrepresented groups. In 1991 she founded the Cornell Public Service Center to further this mission. Now, she is involved in the International Rescue Committee (IRC), an international nonprofit that provides aid to refugees around the world. She is an active environmentalist who became involved with the garden when her grandson, Alston Alexander, died. After his passing, Doob became involved in the garden’s Bulb Labyrinth Memorial Garden, founded in collaboration with Ithaca Prenatal Loss Support.


“That’s how I first got connected to the garden, and then I got exposed to the various programs and I take my granddaughter down there every time I come to town, and it just felt like a very welcoming place and I like that it reaches out to the whole entire community,” Doob said.


This scholarship fund, named after her grandson Alston, brings together several of Doob’s interests; helping refugees, creating access to local resources, and taking care of the earth. After meeting with the garden’s executive director, Erin Marteal, Doob felt like they clicked and liked the vision that Marteal has for the future of the garden.


After choosing to marry her passion for helping refugees and support the garden, Marteal and Doob reached out to local organizations that could connect them to refugee families in the area to make sure they were made aware of the opportunity. Last summer was the first time the scholarship was offered and around three refugee families visited the garden and used the scholarship to participate in programming.


“Depending on the response, we can widen the scope of the population that we reach,” Doob said. “It’s still in the formulative stages. We can start with the refugee population but if we see that the fund itself is growing and that we can expand it to other populations I would be happy to do that.”


Marteal is of a similar mind when it comes to the future of the scholarship. Both she and Doob share the goal of getting more people to the garden who might not otherwise come. To meet this goal, Marteal knows that the opportunities need to be created, but that’s not where the work stops. Sending out special invitations to groups who are underserved or might not know about the garden and what it has to offer is an important part of bringing in the communities the garden wants to serve.


One of the messages the garden is still trying to get out to all residents is that the garden is free and open the entire year. While there are great local resources for entertaining and educating kids, none of them offer both free admission and a year-round schedule.


“People think about the Sciencenter and the Museum of the Earth and the Cayuga Nature Center as being phenomenal environmental education-based, or science-based, institutions, and they are, but you do have to have a membership, a paid membership, to be able to attend, or pay a door fee,” Marteal said. “Through offering the scholarships to our paid programs, our fee-based programs,…we also hope that families will become exposed to the garden as a 365-day resource that is always free and always open.”


The $1,000 scholarship will be used to help families pay for garden programs like the camps held during breaks in the school schedule, Playful Nature Explorers, after-school programs, and some of the outdoor seasonal events.


“This year, we gave out about $10,000 in scholarships throughout our camp programs and our preschool program,” Marteal said. “We’d really love to be able to have a scholarship fund robust enough that covers that because currently that comes out of operations and we do budget for it because it’s a part of our core philosophy that we don’t turn anyone away because they can’t pay.”


The garden has seen the need for scholarship funding increase dramatically. In 2017 the garden gave out $6,000 in scholarship funds. Marteal said it’s difficult to know what need will be like in the coming years, but the need is definitely there. Summer camps and after-school programs, especially free or affordable ones, are not always easy to come by. A lot of the scholarship recipients are also on free or reduced lunch plans, but the garden offers scholarships for people who don’t qualify for free or reduced lunch too.


“I think our goal would be a $10,000 a year fund and then increasing as we need to match increasing need, assuming the need does increase,” Marteal said.


Looking forward, the garden might start seeking out that need as it asks the community what barriers there are to accessing the garden. Through the Diversity and Inclusion Committee of the garden, the garden is working on identifying those barriers in order to address them. Not just barriers to the paid programs, either, but accessing the whole garden as a resource.


“So, we want to prioritize our attentions on vulnerable populations and groups that historically have been underrepresented,” she said.


What the garden operates on, Marteal said, is the concept of equigenesis: the idea that groups who might have less access to quality healthcare, or more life stressors, can start to close the health gap they face by taking advantage of the health benefits of being in and around nature. Using this idea, Marteal said that the garden, as a research-based organization, wants to be actively working to address the inequities that lead to poor health.


“I think, fundamentally, and ultimately, that’s a big part of why this scholarship is so meaningful to ICG. It’s one thing to have an intention, but it’s another to be able to really put resources in place to act in support of this philosophy and turn it into practice.”

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