Redefining Inclusion Through Horticulture 

By Sebastiana Smith  

Gardens throughout the Beverly/Morgan Park area are in bloom, beautifying our neighborhood and creating a haven for pollinators. There are two neighbors in particular whose gardens reflect how passionate they are about growing produce, native and pollinator-friendly plants, so much so that they teach horticulture at Southside Occupational Academy High School (SOA). 

SOA is a transitional facility for students with intellectual and physical disabilities aged 16 to 22. SOA’s mission is to provide life skills and job training to equip their students with the required skills to function independently.  

SOA doesn’t mimic the traditional layout of typical high schools; you can find classrooms that simulate a grocery store, laundry room, apartment lab, car wash, culinary arts room, retail store, and other real-life scenario environments. Included in their vocational curriculum is their Department for Urban Agriculture, which offers horticulture classes taught by two of our very own Beverly/Morgan Park residents, Kristen Dimas and Tinesha Wilkerson 

Dimas and Wilkerson offered decades of experience as special education teachers before teaching horticulture. Wilkerson received her master’s degree in special education from Northeastern Illinois University and is currently enrolled in an online American Sign Language program at the University of St. Francis.  

Dimas received her bachelor’s from Northern Illinois University (NIU), where she studied special and elementary education, then returned to receive her master’s in special education. 

“My love of gardening did not really hit me until I was an adult. I’ve been gardening probably for 27-plus years. My favorite moments are when I can sit back and observe what happens in the garden, like hummingbirds, different pollinators, or really cool butterflies that end up coming into the garden. I once had a zebra swallowtail, which is rare to find, and I know that insect came in because of the things that I planted,” said Dimas. Once she realized that what you plant in your garden attracted specific pollinators, she became more purposeful with what she grew.  

Dimas had been removed from teaching for 19 years before returning to work.  At SOA, she reintegrated as a paraprofessional alongside a horticulture teacher and was elated when she discovered she could bring her two joys — teaching special education and gardening — together. 

“I’m really passionate about involving people with disabilities in everyday life,” said Dimas. She explained that to make activities accessible, and you must make modifications requiring you to be aware of sensory issues, verbal/nonverbal students, and intellectual and physical disabilities.  Hand-over-hand, visual aids, and modified tools for students with minimal motor skills are just a few of the modifications necessary to accommodate each student and consider their needs as individuals so that they can take advantage and be exposed to as many opportunities that their life has to offer with as little limitations as possible.  

Dimas has always been passionate about metamorphosis, so she started the Southside Monarch Butterfly Conservation program to combat the decline of monarch butterflies. Students in her classroom learn how to produce native and perennial plants that Monarch butterflies love to pollinate and use to lay their eggs.  

Throughout the school year, the students learn to identify and learn the function of different gardening equipment; after the foundation of understanding the various tools being used in horticulture, they began to learn the process of propagating and harvesting seeds from native and perennial plants so they can package and distribute the seeds throughout the city to encourage other to join their mission. The students are also responsible for maintaining the health and quality of their plants.  

In 2022, the SOA project won the Judge’s Choice award for the 2021-2022 Illinois Green School Project cohort. “This spring, we propagated over 3,000 seedlings from the seeds we harvested in the fall.  We have been working hard to distribute our plants to our students and staff, other CPS school gardens, and the communities within our attendance area,” said Dimas. 

When she’s not watching for sightings of rare butterflies in her garden or teaching students at SOA how to propagate, you can find her volunteering as a Master Gardener nearby at the Bethlehem Lutheran Church, managing their garden and other gardens around the South Side. In 2020 she completed the Master Gardener program and the Master Urban Farmer Training program through the University of Illinois Extension training program for Cook County. 

Master Gardeners are volunteers responsible for sharing research-based horticulture information with the public through teaching workshops and volunteering. Their mission is to help improve people’s quality of life through horticulture by teaching how to start and manage gardens in hopes that the more accessible horticulture knowledge is, the more it will pollinate from one small home garden to an entire neighborhood, leading to more beautiful and safer living environments that overflow with beautiful flowers, pollinators, and homegrown fresh fruits and vegetables making it possible to eliminate food insecurities endured by Chicago residents that live in food deserts. 

Right next door to Dimas’s SOA classroom, students learn all about growing their food with Wilkerson. Students learn to grow and harvest fruits and vegetables. After harvesting, they share their produce with the culinary class to learn to prepare and share it with their horticulture classmates, allowing students to experience consuming the food they grew. 

But before the lesson plan begins, you must check in! Knowing each student is a significant part of Wilkerson’s horticulture curriculum. “Getting to know students is really important to me because then I can figure out what their interests are,” she said.  

Daily check-ins allow students to practice introducing themselves and having conversations. It’s common for students to discuss how they’re feeling and exciting things that happened during the weekend. Most importantly, it creates community in their classroom, making SOA more than a transitional environment but one that encourages inclusion and individuality. 

SOA has created an excellent environment for their students and faculty to make considerable strides to set the standard for what inclusion looks like.  

SOA students helped Dimas distribute pollinator seedlings and seeds at BAPA’s Home Tour in May, and visitors to BAPA’s Garden Walk on July 9 will be able to learn more about the Urban Ag program and attracting/protecting pollinators.  

Learn more about the Urban Agriculture program at southsideacademycps.org. 

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