In the town of Parys, Free State a well-kept vegetable garden is providing therapeutic healing for the bodies and minds of people suffering from epilepsy and those living with disabilities.
The lives of residents at Epilepsy South Africa’s Free State and North West branch are literally being changed with permaculture. When feeling stressed or bored indoors, they simply step outside and get their spirits lifted with an organic food garden they cultivate themselves.
Started in September 2019, the initial purpose of the garden was to provide a fun outdoor activity that would help residents with their mental as well as physical wellbeing. According to the project coordinator, Keri Steyn, since getting their hands dirty, residents have become physically stronger and sleep better at night.
“We’ve also been able to involve some of the residents, from patients with mental disabilities to now also the psychiatric patients. Even the epilepsy patients are actively involved in the garden and experience fewer seizures,” Steyn says.
The garden, situated on about 500 square metres (roughly two tennis courts in size) grows a wide variety of vegetables, including brinjals, tomatoes, cabbage and butternut. This is used in the three meals per day served to 80 residents at the residential care centre. They also produce vegetables in the three shade cloth tunnel structures found on the property.
As an organisation, Epilepsy SA also gets food donations, and sometimes the quality of the fresh food donations is not that great, Steyn says. The organic food garden was revived to solve this problem.
“The residents are people living with disabilities and some have compromised immune systems, so they need to eat good quality food,” says Steyn.
The garden was established when Steyn, a qualified training provider for Epilepsy SA, visited the branch in early 2019 to facilitate a training session there.
She noticed a piece of land with existing tunnels dedicated to vegetable cultivation. The residents kept the garden, but it was never really utilised.
“It was kind of just an activity for the residents, but nothing really came out of it. Sometimes the residents would either overwater the crops or pull out crops prematurely,” Steyn explains.
What Steyn saw was untapped potential and with the help of the Shoprite Group and their #WeActForChange programme, the neglected garden was revived.
“Now that we’ve started harvesting and the vegetables make it onto the table, our gardeners are even more enthusiastic. They have a real sense of accomplishment, knowing that they can explain the process, from seedling to harvesting, to fellow residents,” says Steyn.
Getting the garden back up and running had its challenging moments. Steyn explains that residents suffering from epilepsy had a difficult time telling weeds from crops.
“Someone would boast about taking the initiative to pull out weeds, meanwhile they had just pulled out our seedlings. So, we had some fun and games with that,” she laughs.
Luckily, as an experienced training provider she and her team were able to guide the residents into nurturing and caring for vegetables and seedlings.
Giving back to others
The majority of the produce goes to the kitchen to supplement residents’ diets. The rest, including the seedlings, are donated to old-age homes and primary schools in the area.
“I wanted our residents to develop a charity mindset and give them a sense of pride in helping and giving to others,” says Steyn.
Occasionally, Steyn says there is a surplus and they are able to sell some of the crops to the local supermarket. One of the tunnels grows tomatoes and they have begun making their own range of tomato jam, relish and chutney. This is sold to the public.
With the garden fully functional, their short-term plan is to acquire shade netting to cover the whole garden. The long-term plans, Steyn says, includes providing a stipend for residents working in the garden.
“[It is] just a little bit if pocket money for what they’ve done. We also want to develop a garden centre and make the garden a bit of an attraction. Visitors should be able to buy a basket or pick their own veggies.”
Steyn says this will give visitors an opportunity to see what they are doing. At the same time it is hoped that this will create awareness around epilepsy and influence the stigma around people living with disabilities.