rowing a flower is a delicate matter. The soil, the water. The wait.
But at a 6-acre garden at the very tip of Palm Beach County’s southern border is a special place with special people who bring to life tens of thousands of flowers a year–a rather amazing feat considering how easy it is to kill one pot of pentas in a hot Florida second.
Impatiens. Plumbago. Salvia. Crotons. Lantana. Petunias.
“People come in here, and they’re just blown away,” says Bill Ferris, the executive director of the Habilitation Center. “We’re one of the biggest bedding nurseries in Palm Beach County and probably a very well-kept secret.”
When Ferris came to this place that gives daily advice and life purpose to about 225 mentally and physically handicapped adults, the nursery operation was selling “a few hanging baskets.”
Twenty-six years later? They sell about a million bedding plants each year to more than 30 commercial customers.
Downtown West Palm Beach. Mar-a-Lago. Trump International Golf Club. The Breakers.
All that color in all those places comes from here.
“We like giving back to the community and what we offer the community is spectacular color,” says nursery manager Bill Smith.
But it’s the story behind the story that made us drive down one recent morning and take a peek. Here, the clients–many from the kind of hardscrabble homelife that goes along with a lifelong disability–do all the nursery work, reporting to duty each morning, taking breaks inside the comfortable air-conditioned main offices, arguing, laughing, persevering when they know they must.
They show up every day just like the rest of us poor working slobs, which might be harder yet when you have autism or Down syndrome or cerebral palsy.
Smith says it’s all about…Well, it’s about that thing that we try to teach our kids from Day One: Sticking with it.
“What we’re asking these people to do is make sound judgments,” Smith says. “If you can stress that the work is important, you find that people are willing to go out there and progress.”
Bob DiRocco, the center’s associate executive director, says they try to place clients in a job they’re going to enjoy.
“We believe in choice,” DiRocco says.
But it was a lack of choice that helped to create this center back in 1978, when a group of frustrated parents and social workers got fed up because there were no day programs for the mentally and physically challenged.
“Group homes were starting about then, but unfortunately there weren’t a lot of day programs,” says Ferris, the executive director who’s been here since 1985.
The grass roots group started out on a small campus that has eventually grown to this 11-acre facility. The annual budget is $4million, which comes from Florida’s share of the Medicaid Waiver program, the state Department of Education, its own manufacturing and nursery operations and donations.
Ferris said they’ve worked hard to market themselves to the community, although social stereotypes are a hard notion to dismiss.
After all, how can a grown woman with an IQ of 35 manufacture an important part for a sensitive electronic device?
Well, with the right direction and structure, with the right supervision and encouragement, she just can.
Eventually, businesses began catching on, Ferris said.
The majority of work at the Habilitation Center goes on in the manufacturing side of their operation, Ferris’ undeniable pride and joy because of the sheer volume and intricacy of what they do, where tables of workers perform contract work for such electrical giants as Motorola and Tyco.
A smaller team of about 25 workers are stationed outside, plugging, planting, wheeling, tending, worrying about wind and rain and sun–and what’s for lunch.
“After you’re here a while, the differences go away,” says DiRocco, the associate director. “They’re just regular people after you get to know them.”
Regular people, talking about the Miami Dolphins(Goodgrief), the rain(Goaway), and how they’re good and ready for this hot weather to break.(Enoughalready.) Timothy Bell, 34, a mentally challenged client who landed a nursery job a while back has this to say about his nursery co-workers.
“They’re nice,” he says, simply.
And then he gives that special Timothy Bell smile–the one everyone on campus knows and loves.
The one he’s used, time and time again, to coax a thousand little flowers into life.
The nursery is not open to the public, but for information about programs, donations or wholesale purchases,visit habcenter.org, or call (561)483-4200.