On Carol Wells’ 80th birthday, she didn't want presents and knick-knacks. She wanted something that would make a difference. Wells ended up with $1,200 in donations for the Victory Garden Project – a garden that will provide food and give residents of the Crisis House in Georgetown the chance to learn the joys of gardening.
“I hope this project will start a trend at shelters and churches in working together to grow food, taking pride in caring for their gardens and enjoying the harvest of their efforts,” she said.
An active member of St. George's Chapel west of Lewes, Wells said she learned the Crisis House wanted to create a community garden in the open lot next to its Railroad Avenue home. Last December, she said, the time was right to take action. Wells proposed the idea to her church group, which donated the first $1,000 for the garden project. Another church member matched the amount, and with Wells's birthday money, the project now has $3,200 to start.
“We've been trying to get this going for a few years,” said Marie Marole, director of Sussex Community Housing Services. “That's all I had to say, and the next thing – she's pulling it together.”
Plans are for nine raised beds for plants and vegetables, and two trellises for growing beans and other vines. A potting bench, picnic table and covered sandbox will fill out the rest of the yard.
By early April, Wells said, church group members have trucks lined up to bring in topsoil, and a group of men from the church are ready to put their carpentry skills to use building the raised beds. “Here I see people who can work in the garden,” she said, gazing over the plot of land that soon will be transformed.
Wells has a passion for helping others that shows when she talks about the homeless and those who need a leg up. For 20 years, she worked at Delaware State Hospital in Wilmington – the precursor of Delaware Psychiatric Hospital. As director of the hospital's volunteer program, which included a greenhouse on the hospital grounds, Wells got to know many of the long-term patients and saw how gardening helped them. “The greenhouse got them out of the wards and doing something,” she said.
Being born and raised in Philadelphia in a family of six children no doubt gave Wells the big-city pluck to work with society's most vulnerable and difficult citizens. Not even the ward of criminally insane residents across from her office gave her pause. “They taught me to shoot pool,” she says with a chuckle. “If you treat people in the right manner, you get better feedback.”
It all changed, however, when the hospital stopped providing long-term care for patients. That's when Wells said she had enough. She said she watched as patients who never knew anything but institutional care were parceled off to apartments or extended family. After 20 years of work, it was time to retire.
“It was heartbreaking,” she said. “Patients had no skills on the outside. The way the hospital was doing things was not right.”
Not one to stay still for long, Wells opened up an antiques shop, selling and restoring furniture in Wilmington. But fate stepped in when she met a woman passionate about helping the homeless – Sister Jeanne Cashman, founder of Sojouners' Place in Wilmington.
“When I met Jeanne, I closed the shop. That's when I turned to sheltering,” Wells said. Working with Cashman, Wells said, they opened a new type of shelter, allowing tenants to stay more than a year to get their lives in order.
Living in Pine Water Neck since 1992 with her partner Helen Abrams, Wells said she sees the same dedication at Crisis House that she remembers from the Wilmington shelter. “I look at it, and I see this shelter that lives up to the commitment to help people,” she said.
Creating a garden is another step to improve the lives of those who need it. “It's these small things that can make a difference,” Wells said.
Marole said she is thrilled that the garden is finally happening. “The garden has been something I wanted to do for a long time,” said Marole. “We can feed ourselves and share it with the neighborhood.”