For years, women and children fleeing domestic violence in 17 counties in Kentucky turned to the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program. The organization’s 24-hour hotline and shelter offered help to women who were physically and psychologically battered in this economically depressed region. Many of the women were isolated from families and friends, and often they fled with their children and little else.
Today, the nonprofit continues to be a shelter and resource for survivors of domestic violence, but the organization has expanded its approaches to healing. Now called Greenhouse 17, it operates a small farm and business on its 40-acre facility. Through their work with the farm, women who came seeking shelter are gaining skills, confidence, and a renewed sense of self-worth.
Shelter residents grow vegetables, herbs and flowers. Vegetables are sold to the public through a community-supported agriculture program. The women preserve some veggies for later and supply fresh greens to their own shelter kitchen. Residents use the herbs to make soaps and balms, which they sell online under the brand “Handmade by Survivors.”
The flowers, though, have turned out to be a favorite. Customers in Lexington and other nearby communities buy flowers via the weekly CSA and also purchase arrangements for weddings and other special occasions. And residents decorate the shelter with flower arrangements.
Jessica Ballard, the staff farm manager, says the early-morning harvests of fresh flowers and the meditative work of arranging the flowers has contributed to the healing of the traumatized women.
The women didn’t all immediately take to farm work. Some preferred to sit on the porch and smoke cigarettes, Ballard admits. But residents now receive a stipend for their work, and those who choose to lend a hand get hooked. “They are experiencing nature, getting up every morning, and getting exercise. And they’re working together and creating something beautiful,” she said.
“To work in the farm every day was a sense of accomplishment,” says Donna, a resident of Greenhouse 17, in a video posted on the shelter’s website. “I came out here, and I was able to let my mind go. I didn’t have to worry about the stresses that were on me. I was working … to feed the house and to help the other girls. I love helping people, and if I could help them more than myself, that was a good thing.”
Here’s another thing that has changed with the farm: Unlike most domestic violence shelters, the staff of Greenhouse 17 no longer keeps the shelter’s location a secret. While they do take security precautions, the public knows the location, and people from the community come out to volunteer.
The women love showing visitors around, Ballard says. They get to show off their knowledge, and visitors get to know the residents.
“After what I went through … the farm has helped me realize that I can do it. I can start something and I can finish it,” Donna says. “I can watch something grow from the beginning stage to the end stage and see the result it has on everyone else.”