The gift of a garden

Remember the feeling of eating a blackberry for the first time? Or a piece of kale? Or an edible flower?
June 17, 2015

Remember the feeling of eating a blackberry for the first time? Or a piece of kale? Or an edible flower?

A newly expanded garden at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services in West Los Angeles has made these memories — and many more — possible in recent weeks, thanks to the donation by L.A. billionaire businessman John Paul DeJoria, co-founder of hair care company Paul Mitchell Systems and the Patrón Spirits Co. 

DeJoria donated the garden, designed by Arleen Ferrara, through his JP’s Peace Love Happiness Foundation. About 40 people joined him at a ribbon-cutting ceremony on June 9, including students, staff and other benefactors. 

The garden is the centerpiece of a growing horticulture program run by teacher Crystal Mandel at Vista Del Mar, a secular institution that has roots as a Jewish orphanage. Today, it operates a residential treatment program as well as a school for children with learning disabilities, developmental challenges or emotional, social or behavioral issues, many of whom come from low-income homes.  Vista Del Mar also continues to offer adoption services.

Vista Del Mar President and CEO Louis Josephson said the expanded garden is enabling the center to improve its offerings in horticulture therapy, and to integrate a holistic approach to food into the daily lives of its students, many of whom face emotional, behavioral and developmental challenges.

“We know [food] affects kids’ behavior, so giving them a taste of things like this is really amazing, because they may not be getting it at home, or they may not be aware of it,” Josephson said. “Our whole food program here — our lunch and breakfast program for the kids — is really pushing fresh foods and fresh herbs, and this just goes along with it. Now they can see, ‘Hey that’s the kale that’s in my salad.’ ”

DeJoria hopes this encounter will lead students to develop a lifelong love of gardens, which, he says, was important to his upbringing. Raised in Echo Park, East L.A. and Atwater Village, DeJoria’s mother — a single parent to two boys —  always had a green thumb. DeJoria maintained an appreciation for the earth as he got older and faced personal and financial struggles, including periods of homelessness.

“We always had a garden. No matter how small our place was, we grew something,” he said. “So I was used to working in the garden, and working and eating my own food.”

Although DeJoria has since founded multiple successful companies, he has continued to view gardening as an important component of healthy living. 

“I want to donate a garden so that people know: 1) If you are successful, you share it. And 2) How cool it is to be in a garden,” DeJoria said. “I’m lucky enough to have good things going in my life so that I can do things like this.”

DeJoria has established similar programs across the U.S. and abroad, including Grow Appalachia, an effort that is bringing family farming and gardening back to communities in that region that have lost their connection to the land around them. 

The program at Vista Del Mar is smaller in scale, but nonetheless important for the kids it targets in the Los Angeles area, according to Josephson. 

“A lot of our kids are inner-city kids, and they are just not out in nature,” he said, adding that fast food, not fresh food, is predominant in their neighborhoods. “They are not exposed to this kind of stuff.” 

In addition to a wide variety of vegetables and berries, the garden contains 16 new fruit trees.  

“And this is still very young. This is just the first year, so I expect it to become better and better as  the trees mature and as the soil continues to become more rich,” Mandel said.

A student named James said the garden is invaluable. “The garden is a relaxing place for me because I love to be outside in nature,” he said. “I love to garden and to see the different changes plants go through.”

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