by Eric Thomas Campbell
The Jefferson-Chalmers community is dotted with whimsical vegetable gardens, fields of wild flowers and hoop houses of various sizes and builds. Over the last decade, residents here have slowly taken ownership of long-vacant lots and transformed them into rustic sanctuaries. From the creative achievements of residents, a tight-knit community bent on self-determination has emerged. In that visionary spirit, an inconspicuous group of children meeting weekly at the far end of Manistique are the focal point of even grander plans.
The Manistique Community Treehouse and Therapy Center is the brainchild of Tammy Black along with other members of the Manistique Block Club and the Creekside Community Development Corp. Their vision for a healing center for children and adults with emotional and physical challenges began with this small group of talented youths who meet weekly on the lot where the treehouse is to be built.
What Black calls ‘horticultural therapy’ is at the root of a program offered thus far to youth living mainly in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood. Beginning in July, Tammy and behavioral therapist, Jasmine Toney, began using the gardens of Manistique and the wooded lots along the block as a healing space. The Horticultural Therapy Program is based on a holistic, sustainable approach which includes learning to eat healthy and growing food locally.
The treehouse project was conceived partly because the program now needs a physical location to call home. Black wanted to provide a permanent indoor space to meet during the colder months, while maintaining an attachment to the natural outdoors in which the therapy program has flourished. She also wanted children participating in the program to be involved in developing a major community project from beginning to end.
Black and the Manistique Block Club have successfully partnered with Creekside Community Development Corp, active neighbors and the children to plan the treehouse, projected to be a 400-square-foot ADA wheelchair-accessible, six-sided structure, situated between the Maple and Cottonwood trees in the vacant lot across the street from her home. Over 120 feet of ramps, platforms and decks will surround the main house, which will be raised 10 feet off the ground.
Black, who has worked with children with disabilities for 30 years, says that starting the program with emphasis on the youth has allowed an organic mentorship program to emerge, pairing the natural energy and curiosity of the children with the experience and teachings of neighborhood elders. Though the focus of the horticultural therapy is persons with disabilities, Black says the treehouse will promote diversity of residents in the Jefferson-Chalmers community and the mental wellbeing of youth, families, seniors and veterans.
“As a block club, we foster that adult-child interaction,” Black told Riverwise.
“The older neighbors help the children identify plants and weeds.”
Black proudly champions her youth program as one of the few horticultural therapy programs in the region. However, positive results stemming from such holistic approaches to child therapy are well-documented nationally.
This past Spring, Jasmine Toney, professional counselor and therapist, responded to a call put out by Black for assistance in setting up community-based support for neighborhood children experiencing mild behavioral and adjustment problems in school.
‘Horticultural therapy’ as a specific discipline was a new concept for Toney, but one that she understood and incorporated into her weekly sessions on Manistique. She pointed out:
“I had an idea that it had to do with nature and gardening of course, and a more holistic approach. So I was intrigued, because that’s how I do clinical work. It’s an overall perspective– from mental health to the foods you eat, to your physical wellness– all of that.”
Toney says the program includes conventional approaches to group therapy, focusing on group interaction, task achievement, and the participants’ ability to communicate with each other— the emphasis on outdoor activities accelerates the results. Toney explains:
“In this program, horticultural therapy incorporates the community garden into clinical practice and focuses on wellness by getting the kids out into nature. When we can, we hold our sessions outside in the garden and it’s just a different atmosphere where we can focus on different things. We’re doing a little bit of meditation, sometimes we’ll do yoga, sometimes they’re picking things out of the garden. It’s more about incorporating nature into clinical practice.”
When visiting the Manistique therapy group, it doesn’t take long to realize what effect the horticultural program has had on its young participants. Their level of comfort in the gardens is immediately apparent. They thrive in the community garden adjacent to Black’s home on Manistique, which is filled with plants, vegetables and flowers of various kinds. Overflowing with contributions from the surrounding community, the garden now provides emotional sanctuary in addition to physical nourishment.
Building upon the rewards of the garden therapy program, Black is exploring yet another healing modality. Alternative energy is now a focal point for Black and her students. In fact, it has become a preferred source of power for the newer building projects on the block. The Manistique Treehouse, which is due to break ground any day, will not be the first project to be powered completely by the sun. It will join the ‘Shine A Light Project’ building, which is anchored by a wooden A-frame structure built in partnership with sculptor Ash Arder and the Charles Wright Museum of African American History.
“Everything we are doing will be powered by solar energy from here on out,” claims Black, including the ‘Shine A Light’ building, designed to be a projection house inside which neighborhood residents will be able to watch interviews of elders in the community speaking about the community and how it has evolved. Filmmaker Julie Dash will soon be recording the interviews for the ‘Shine A Light’ projections. The structure will double as a greenhouse for plants more vulnerable to the elements.
The Manistique Tree House project is still fundraising for the $60,000 needed to complete the construction next year and volunteers are sorely needed. But the plans have been drawn, and the digging to establish the foundation is due to be completed before the ground freezes over. For months now, Tammy Black and her students have imagined a widely accessible destinationin this lower east-side neighborhood, a special place designed to continue growing a healthy community. From the original plans, an enchanting sanctuary in the forest is emerging.
For more information about the Manistique Street Community Treehouse and Therapy Center, call Tammy at 313-903-0639, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. To make a donation, visit the website: manistiquetreehouse.org.
Raised on Detroit’s northwest side, Eric Thomas Campbell is the co-ordinator of Riverwise Magazine and a member of the editorial staff. Eric worked as a staff writer for the progressive Michigan Citizen Newspaper from 2007-2012, covering a wide range of issues affecting Detroit’s majority Black community.