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2006 Garden Crusader Winners

Winner: Education
Vince Lalli, Seneca Falls, N.Y.

Vince Lalli
2006 Garden Crusader Vince Lalli

After 25 years of teaching in New York's Phelps-Clinton Springs public schools, you'd think that Vince Lalli would be ready to relax. However, that was the furthest thing from his mind when he retired in 1994. Instead, he immediately enrolled at Cornell University to pursue a Master's Degree in Horticulture. Vince had a plan. He wanted to combine his passion for teaching and for plants by creating intergenerational gardens in his community.

Gardening in His Blood

Vince traces his passion for gardening back to his grandfather, who was a bulb farmer, and his mother, who was one of the first women to own her own florist shop in the family's hometown of Geneva, New York.

Though he's always been a gardener at heart, Vince spent most of his professional career teaching social studies and history. "I've always been a big advocate of hands-on learning," says Vince. While teaching at the elementary school, he spearheaded a program to have senior citizens come into the classroom with farming implements, and teach the kids about the agricultural history of the area. "I saw how the kids and seniors came alive when they started interacting. I thought this was a good model to use in other programs," says Vince.

Vince's interest in intergenerational gardening was also inspired by his Uncle Frank. "I was visiting my Uncle Frank in a nursing home after he had a stroke. Here was a man who had been a nurseryman, a garden center owner, a hunter, fisherman and generally very active all his life. He was incapacitated after his stroke. I looked at him and the other people in the nursing home, and thought there must be some way to improve the quality of their lives," says Vince.

A New Career

Going back to graduate school as a middle-aged adult would keep the average person pretty busy, but Vince also found time to obtain a mini-grant from Cornell and start an intergenerational garden at a local kindergarten. After he graduated, he wrote a book on intergenerational gardening called Using Plants to Bridge the Generations, and also started a program called Horticultural Intergenerational Learning as Therapy (HILT).

Vince's intergenerational gardening programs were written up in Modern Maturity, Country Journal and the Cornell Chronicle magazines. He soon began receiving requests to work with different agencies and schools throughout Central New York State to create more intergenerational gardening programs. Vince would set up the programs, and use his teaching experience to write curriculum and navigate the bureaucracies of school systems and government agencies.

"We broke down social barriers about who could participate and benefit from gardening," says Vince. "At one location, I even paired a 4th grade class with patients from the psychiatric unit at a local hospital," he says. "The results of intergenerational gardening are always the same. The kids and adults feel empowered to improve their lives, and have a greater sense of self-esteem and confidence. Gardening breaks down the social barriers that divide us," he says.

Working With At-Risk Kids

Although the intergenerational gardens were a big success, Vince had more to offer. In 2000, New York State Senator Michael Nozzolio read about Vince's programs and asked him to help start a horticulture program at a new residential treatment facility for at-risk teens. "What started as a one day a week consulting job has turned into a full time labor of love," says Vince.

The program at Hillside School residential facility for teens, started with eight kids and now involves 120. Vince finds gardening provides these kids with opportunities to succeed in ways that were previously unavailable to them. "The program is interdisciplinary, in that we teach math, science, economics and other academic and practical life skills through our gardening projects. It's intercommunity because we have the kids involved in the neighborhoods, such as working with seniors in nursing homes. It's intercollegiate because we have Cornell University graduate students conducting scientific experiments with the kids as part of their studies," says Vince. The kids from Hillside School are also able to explore real world career options in the horticultural industry. "It gives them hope and the possibility of creating a better life," says Vince.

While the successes of the Hillside School program are impressive, it still comes down to helping one kid at a time. The power of horticulture to transform lives was evident with a student named Tom. He came to the school at 16, and like many kids when they first arrive, he was angry and did not want to participate at all. He hated school and everything about it. "After one month in the horticulture program, you should have seen the transformation in Tom," says Vince. He set up a tropical rainforest in his dorm shower and has become skilled at healing sick plants. "Tom came up to me one day after class and said he wanted to be a horticulture teacher like me when he was older," says Vince.

The Next Challenge

Having made a significant impact on children, teens and seniors in central New York State, Vince is now setting his sights a bit further. "I was recently contacted by the Alabama Extension Service to help set up an 'Intergenerational Common Greenspace' project. It would include 13 different sites in Alabama, and has the potential of connecting with Cornell for a north-south interstate program," he says. Vince may also write a sequel to his book, called Using Green Spaces to Bridge the Generations. It sounds like Vince Lalli won't be putting his feet up any time soon.

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