Every year the 3rd year Occupational Therapy students take on an intense community project as part of service learning that is designed to both address some of the occupational therapy needs of the community and to help them develop the professional skills that will make them valuable occupational therapists in the future. The 3rd year module itself, Emerging Areas of Occupational Therapy Practice, has been in near continual evolution since its inaugural year in 2006. It began as a kind of needs assessment to various groups and NGOs around Galway which represented a wide variety of people with various disabilities who were, for some reason or another, excluded from the larger Galway community. In 2007 the module became a full year project and shifted its focus from needs assessment to actually addressing those needs in collaboration with the different community organizations and developing projects that could be effectively implemented. This particular evolution of the 3rd year module was extremely successful with loads of positive community feedback and gratitude for services that could not normally be provided. "But everything has to change," says course director Margaret McGrath. "It can't just stand still."
With this in mind, she set to developing a new project for this year's 3rd years that would be bigger, more multidisciplinary, more inclusive of the whole community, and most importantly more sustainable. Taking inspiration from a colleague at the University of Vic in Barcelona, and from a visible growing need for improved health and nutrition in the Galway community, the first seeds of the Galway Community Garden were planted and her students are growing that idea into a tangible reality.
In their first semester students immersed themselves in research. They looked into why a community garden is a good idea, studying the impacts on mental health in kids and adults, the impact of having feelings of inclusion, a shared space, and meaningful activities for traditionally excluded populations such as the physically or mentally disabled, the homeless, and the elderly. They looked into the practical elements of what kind of and how much space they would need, the groups they wanted to include and what kind of resources they would need to effectively accommodate different populations. They researched how to build effective and sustainable partnerships, how to procure funding and include community partners in everything from conception, to design, to planning and planting, to watching the garden grow, to reaping the benefits- whatever they are- from being part of a community space. They researched it all and they have taken their research- their vision- to the community, to the university, and to a few specific community partners who represent a mix of people that for various reasons have difficulty accessing traditional opportunities in the community. And the response has been overwhelmingly positive. "You hear all these horrible stories," McGrath says regarding efforts to bring together so many different community organizations and get funding, "but we've found that if you ask people and you approach them with this 'wouldn't it be wonderful if' idea, they'll help you with it."
So students have been out in the community, approaching businesses, high level University officials, and professionals in many fields with presentations on the community garden project. By talking to the Galway city council, community organizations, the Buildings Office at NUIG and Vice President of Innovation and Performance Chris Curtin, students have put together an amazing list of strong partnerships, gotten support for procuring appropriate space for the garden, obtained funding for a 2 day learning trip to Spain, and built a strong base for their community garden project. For this year's students that has been a driving goal. "We want the foundations of this to be solid" says 3rd year student Áine Tivnan. "We want the research to be solid. We want to get the right people involved from the very beginning because if you don't have the right people in the foundation, the project will collapse." With a strong base and an awareness of how important it is to do all the foundational work right, the students are moving forward with this 'wouldn't it be wonderful if' idea and approaching with evermore sureness and determination the building of a Galway community garden. One of the skills that this module helps them develop is that professional confidence and the knowledge that they themselves can make things happen in the community. Conor Keady, another 3rd year student, said that "the biggest worry doing a presentation for all these professionals is that you're going to come across like a child." But having achieved so much and seen so many community partners come together, those doubts are gone. While this confidence in their skills, their ability to be professional, and make things happen, is a goal of this module, more important is the actual creation of this space the students have been working so hard to put together.
Their vision to develop a sustainable garden is meant to create a space that will facilitate those involved in coming together as a community, and aims to promote well being through engagement in purposeful activity. "Its about promoting inclusion and demonstrating that people who have been rejected because of their label do have something valuable to contribute," says McGrath. Additionally, it provides students with the opportunity to develop the vocational skills they will need to be successful Occupational Therapists it today's market which is moving away from working solely with individuals and is focusing on health as part of community. Occupational Therapy today is addressing how people participate and are included in their communities when they've got disability, or a poor economic situations, or minimum education. And this project is helping students develop the skills needed to create and implement entrepreneurial programs that do address elements of wider social change.
One of the main values that McGrath speaks of is that students are learning about partnership and social justice. They're learning about how health is determined by social circumstances and what can they can do as professionals to address these issues. "It brings a social orientation to what they've done," she says, "and it challenges them to think about what their roles in the community are as professionals. Is it enough to treat the individuals and give them something that makes them better but doesn't change what made them sick, or do they have more responsibility about shifting attitudes and giving opportunities for increasing inclusion?"
McGrath could not praise her students enough for their willingness to build something from the ground up, and their patience and determination to do it right. "Students are bringing lots of enthusiasm," she says. "They're youthful and optimistic and they still believe they can change the world, which is really fantastic." This year's group is also different because they're laying the groundwork for a project that will hopefully be around for years to come, but they themselves won't see the finished product as part of their year. In light of this, McGrath thought it would be good to show them what had inspired the idea as well as an example of what a real community garden might look like in action, so she arranged with Dr. Salvador Simo at the University of Vic, for she and some of her students to come and see the Jardi Miquel Marti Pol which he had developed and has been operating for six years there. McGrath took 15 students with her to the University of Vic to work along side students and users at the garden, and to discuss some of the theoretical elements they still had practical questions about. The trip had a tremendous learning outcome allowing the students from NUIG to ask about some of the barriers the students at University of Vic had faced and how they overcame them, as well as questions about garden costs, funding, safety, and what kind of expertise has been needed to keep their garden growing and successful. They were also able to look at the garden with a critical eye and see what wouldn't work for them in Galway and what they thought they could do differently for their unique community partners at home. "It was great seeing an end product," says Conor, "but I think we can still do better." Áine says that she hopes to take what they have seen and grow from it to incorporate more of the service learning theory they have looked at and be sure that their garden is a real partnership between students and users from different backgrounds. The students are still learning and reassessing what they need as they move forward with the planning.
While they have made an unbelievable amount of progress in research and development and have built up strong and vital community partnerships that will ensure a successful and sustainable community garden one day soon, these students' work is not done and they now have to pass the baton to next year's 3rd year students. In this spirit, they are writing "handover reports" that include the theoretical elements of their research and what the research directed them to do as well as an operational component that tells next year's students who they have been in touch with in the community, where things have been left, and what the next steps are for the project. The groundwork has been laid, but next year's students have more bridges to cross in making this community garden everything it can be. "Ideally we'd like to see this as a multidisciplinary project," says McGrath, who later hopes to involve students in business, marketing, and engineering. "There's a lot of opportunity for cross-fertilization and cross-learning. And that's the way things should go because nobody has the entire set of skills to promote community or to promote health. Everybody is needed." And she is right. This year's 3rd year Occupational Therapy students have done amazing work, and next year's students have big shoes to fill, but we have no doubt that they will rise to the challenge.