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THE GIFT OF TIME / Volunteers in Orange County

Esteem Also Grows in Shelter's Garden


Behind a cluster of buildings, beyond the cars racing along Fullerton's Harbor Boulevard, is a garden tilled, tended and enjoyed by children whose lives have been uprooted by abuse and neglect.

"It's a little secret garden back there, behind a concrete jungle," said Pat Williams, known as the Garden Lady. "No one knows it's here."

It has been five years since the Yorba Linda resident planted the first seeds for what she thought would be "a little gardening project" but has in fact grown into a full-fledged community endeavor called Kids Matter Park.

The garden grows at a home for troubled children (formerly Cottage Hospital). This site, run by Florence Crittenton Services of Orange County Inc., houses and treats about 50 children--boys ages 6 to 11 and girls 6 to 14. The children are wards of the court who have been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect. Many have been deemed unsuitable for foster care because of severe behavior problems.

These are children unseen and forgotten--not unlike the secret garden--by much of society. Or they were until Williams, 39, stepped in and got her hands dirty.

The idea came to Williams--who likes to garden but claims she has no green thumb--after touring the home and its barren backyard: "It was an eyesore."

That 18-foot-by-35-foot plot of dirt has been transformed into a thriving, colorful oasis of vegetables, flowers and animal-shaped topiaries, plus benches, a playhouse and an elaborate jungle gym that Williams says is the "Cadillac of play equipment."

The garden's brick walls are painted with hollyhocks and sunflowers. Tiles painted by the children create a mosaic; now each child can leave a lasting mark on the garden.

Kids Matter Park has blossomed into a place of tranquillity and a source of pride its tenders.

"Ninety-nine percent of these children had never worked in a garden before," Williams said. "Gardening is a quieting, nurturing experience, whether you're a troubled child or an average, stressed-out mom."


On a recent fall afternoon, Williams and half a dozen youngsters planted daffodil bulbs bought with money donated from neighborhood children. They had sent money they made from running a lemonade stand to Crittenton with a letter saying that they like to garden too.

Williams, in jeans and pink gloves, demonstrated how to dig a small trench: "We're making soft little beds for [the bulbs] in the winter, and then they'll come up in spring."

The children scraped at the earth with their trowels, squealing at the sight of worms.

"Worms are good," she said. "They dig little holes in the soil and make it light and nutritious."

"I hate them!" insisted a boy of about 6. "They're too slimy for me."

"I love them," Williams said, adding, "You'll come to love worms too."

One 9-year-old boy in overalls worked intently in the small ditch. "I liked to garden because I help God plant the stuff he wants to grow," he said.


The garden itself has also been a teacher.

The first time the children planted, some dug up the seeds every day to see what was happening. One wanted to know if an eggplant would yield an egg.

Gardening also has helped the children learn to control their impulses and their anger, Williams said. Anger is a problem for many residents, especially those new to the home and those born with drug addictions or fetal-alcohol syndrome.

During the bulb-planting, Williams had to break up a brief tug of war over the biggest shovel and stop a dirt-clod skirmish between two boys.

"Volunteers have to understand a child's behavior is a product of the life they've known so far," Williams said. "You don't get angry or annoyed."

Williams prefers working side-by-side with one or two children, helping them to sort out feelings even when "all of my plants just sit there."

"The important thing isn't what you're putting in the ground, and it certainly isn't planting in straight rows," she said. "The biggest thrill is when the kids let me into their world. That means the most to me."

To Williams, success is being confided in by a child who hasn't spoken since arriving at the home. It's the 9-year-old boy she couldn't trust with a shovel because "you never knew what he'd do," who eventually gained enough self-control to work with her in the garden without extra supervision.

"I can see the progress different kids have made," Williams said.

The garden isn't perfect: Too many curious hands pluck flower heads and pull at leaves. Still, it's the first taste of success for some residents. Williams submits flowers from the garden to the annual Orange County Fair, and the entries yield huge blue ribbons.

The kids also love eating their crops.

"I'd never in my life seen kids fight over who will eat squash," said Marilyn Salzman, director of development for Florence Crittenton Services.

Leftover harvest is donated to the Fullerton Interfaith Food Bank. "This gives the children a real sense of contributing, a feeling they're doing something important," Salzman said.

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