WEST ROGERS PARK — A group with bee hives and urban gardens sprinkled throughout the neighborhood are helping disabled seniors learn about how to grow and eat healthy food inside a greenhouse behind the Westwood Manor Nursing Home.
Molly Costello and partner Peter Hoy, leaders of LETS GO Chicago, have hosted classes twice a week in a back-alley greenhouse behind the home, at 2444 W. Touhy Ave., since planting 1,000 seedlings in the spring.
"Some of them are wheelchair bound," said Costello of the nursing home residents, many of whom also suffer from a mental disability. "All of them like to just be out there. It's peaceful, it's calm."
Costello, 24, and Hoy, 26, said they heard about the unused greenhouse from a friend, and they thought it was a shame it wasn't being put to use.
The two, members of the United Church of Rogers Park, have built urban gardens, typically in raised beds, all over the neighborhood — even in the backyards of consenting property owners.
During the summer, they host high school and grade school students to teach about sustainable agriculture in an urban environment. This summer they're raising money for programming through an online campaign.
So far they've raised $2,600.
"What we want to do is make sure people have access to organic foods," said Pavin Maddamsetti, 23, who moved from Indianapolis recently to work with LETS GO Chicago.
Joseph Liberman, who manages the nursing home, said the greenhouse, able to operate year-round, was built in 2011 with a $50,000 grant from the state.
But it mostly sat vacant and unused until Costello and Hoy approached him.
Now "it energizes everyone here. They have been much more calm, amazingly calm," he said of the residents.
Ayanna, a three-year resident of the nursing home who didn't want to reveal her last name, attends the classes and helped plant lettuce, cabbage and arugula in raised beds outside of the greenhouse.
"This is a great place to be," she said. "I experienced seeing the growth of the plants."
She said her and other residents have learned to "work together" while planting and harvesting.
If all goes as planned, an empty lot the nursing home owns about 50 yards from the greenhouse and bordering Rogers Park would be converted to community gardens.
During a morning class in June, Costello and Hoy helped a group of residents pick lettuce from the raised beds to make a salad.
"What's this, cabbage?" asked resident William Selep, 59, who said he helped work in his uncle's gardens as a kid.
"Yep," Costello replied.
"See, I know my plants!"