Survivors Of Intimate Partner Abuse Use Therapeutic Horticulture To Heal

Oct 2, 2018

One group in central Kentucky is healing the effects of intimate partner abuse also known as domestic violence .


Researchers at the University of Kentucky Center on Research for Violence Against Women are studying the healing effects on women involved in a unique program .

45 year old Gloria  grew up in Hazard and for the last 15 years has been living in Lexington. Earlier this year, a social worker got Gloria to GreenHouse17, a unique domestic abuse shelter on 40 acres of farmland in central Kentucky. She came for the reason all survivors find their way here. “An abusive relationship from thirteen years, thirteen year abusive relationship. I came here from the hospital. I came from the hospital with absolutely nothing."


Gloria says the people at GreenHouse17 are providing her and other survivors with every service they need to rebuild, from housing to financial counseling.  She stands by rows of sunflowers, marigolds, and vegetables where she clips the flowers. What’s serving her most emotionally and mentally is the farm where she helps grow the flowers.


 “You plant, you harvest. You have flowers, you have vegetables. We get the ground ready. Everything from the very beginning to the very end of planting. I mean you do it all."


In 2005, the organization was initially called the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program.  Director Darlene Thomas says about 7 years ago small gardens were put in on the farm. Flowers are grown and arranged by women who work the farm. The flowers are also sold through a subscription program called Community Supported Agriculture or CSA. Products like soaps and bath salts are also made and sold on the farm.


Thomas says the shelter’s name was changed to GreenHouse17 because it serves 17 counties and a greenhouse is a place where things are grown in a protected environment.


“It speaks to the growth and the beauty and the potential and the capacity of human beings. Not to what’s been done to them but to what they are capable of doing.”


Working the farm is optional. Those interested earn a stipend  for their work. There’s a study in progress to measure the impact on battered women at a residential shelter working with the horticulture program or therapeutic horticulture.  Thomas says, anecdotally, the program’s been transformative.


“At first maybe the carrot is the money. After they’re done, most find themselves back on that farm.  Because what they have found is a really organic way to have some peace and be productive.”


A federal grant from the office of Violence Against Women at the Department of Justice for nearly 500 thousand dollars is funding the study. Dr. Diane Follingstad, director of the Center for Research on Violence Against Women at the University of Kentucky and one of the lead investigators says, information about things like self-esteem, sense of accomplishment, depression and anxiety is collected from the women for 6 weeks at the shelter. Then there’s a follow-up  3-4 months after they leave .


“You can’t underestimate the value of what it means to plant something watch it grow , harvest it  and not have some  sense of you’ve accomplished something  and you’re part of this cycle of nature."   


Dr .Follingstad says if they can demonstrate through research the farm experience has good effects on the women and preferably long lasting effects, funding could be made available for more programs like the one at GreenHouse17.


As many as 99 percent of all survivors of domestic violence experience some form of financial abuse within the relationship, according to Kim Pentico director of economic justice with the national network to end domestic violence. As far as she knows ,this program is unique in the country.


“Being able to provide survivors opportunities to build skills and have a trade is so critical. Financial empowerment helps survivors of domestic violence move from short term safety to long term security.”


Holding back tears survivor Gloria tells how GreenHouse17 is making a life changing impact on her .


“To be able to think that you’re not capable of anything and then to go and realize that you’re capable of everything,  you learn that there and that’s hard to put into words.”


Director Darlene Thomas says there are 15 domestic violence programs across the state of Kentucky. Still, GreenHouse17 is unique with the opportunity for therapeutic horticulture.​