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Hope grows in South Bronx soil

Addicts tend plants and trees in New Leaf turn-around program.

By Carolina K. Moraes

Community Markets
Plants from the New Leaf greenhouse for sale at the Hunts
Point Farmers Market.

Walking past plum, cherry, and apple trees, Edgar Sosa takes hold of a leafless branch. “You should come back in spring to see this,” he says. “They will be absolutely beautiful.”

The improbable orchard shelters in two greenhouses tucked away on 160th Street in Longwood. They are part of New Leaf, a program whose purpose is to give vocational training to homeless ex-addicts. Sosa is the program’s director and horticulturist.

Inside the main greenhouse, the smell of humid dirt blends with the fragrance of geraniums, bougainvillea, exotic orchids, and even banana trees. Dozens of Easter lilies are about to break open, sensing the warm weather to come. The men and women move around the propagation tables aligning the pots, watering, manicuring, and picking the dry leafs from the plants.

Jeffrey Seabrooks, a soft-spoken former addict who’s been clean for 14 months, says the orchids are his favorites: “They need more attention than most of the rest.”

The program’s participants perform their tasks under the eyes of Jose Lima, a former addict himself, who nine years ago graduated from New Leaf and today works as a counselor. His first encounter with plants inspired him to plant a garden at home. “It is very relaxing and therapeutic,” he explained.

Bending over a thicket of azaleas, Victor Walker, who has been at New Leaf for a month, says he is happy working in the greenhouses. “We learn a lot about plants. I can’t say this will be my line of work, but it is definitely a good experience.”

Rather than turning participants into professional gardeners, New Leaf’s goal is to instill discipline and values that are needed in any field, enabling participants eventually to return to society as productive members.

The plants are sold at the greenhouse and in farmers markets around the city, along with vinegars infused with greenhouse-grown herbs. They will be available at the Hunts Point market at Southern Blvd. and 163rd St. when the market reopens this spring. They are also available at the greenhouse, 760 East 160th St, Monday through Friday, from 9:30 a.m to 11:45 a.m. and 1:30 p.m to 3:30 p.m.

Prices range from $6 for a 6-inch indoor pot up to several hundred dollars for exotic trees, such as the giant elephant ears. According to Sosa, the clientele is loyal and sensitive to New Leaf’s cause. “They are psychologically and emotionally attached,” he said.

Each week, a different group of participants in the program is sent to the markets. They are kept away from handling cash, but are encouraged to interact with the customers. “We want them to go and deal with people, be polite and market something,” Sosa explained.

The current 85 participants came to New Leaf as part of their residential treatment programs in institutions such as Argus Community, Inc., New Leaf’s parent organization, and Palladia in the Tremont section. They all have similar backgrounds of drug and alcohol abuse. Many have been sent to the treatment program as an alternative to prison. Their work history is limited or non-existent.

“We address all the items needed in any professional field, such as behaving in a collective environment, but the most important aspect is to rebuild their self–esteem,” said Sosa, who also serves as a counselor.

The men and women at New Leaf attend daily meetings where they are taught how to behave and dress properly and present themselves in job interviews. Once a week, they meet for what is called a work issues section, a therapy group that focuses on their emotions and helps them deal with one another. “These people forgot how to handle their emotions in real life. We teach them how to keep a job,” said Sosa.

In addition, they are assigned to in-house jobs such as working in the office, but working in the greenhouses seems to be what the people at New Leaf look forward to the most.

The revenue generated from sales is plowed back into maintaining the greenhouse operation, while administrative expenses are funded by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Sales of plants and vinegars brought in $143,000 in 2005, the last year for which figures were available, helping to offset program expenses of close to $600,000, according to Argus Community’s accounting to the IRS.

The graduation rates at New Leaf are high, according to Sosa. About 98 percent of the men and women who come to the six-week program complete it. Over half of them go on to find permanent employment or full-time education after finishing treatment at their respective residential programs, he adds.

Some of the graduates ask to return as volunteers in the greenhouses. That, said Sosa shows that the program is successful. “Here at New Leaf miracles happen on a daily basis,” he said.

“By learning about plants,” he continued, “they are discovering about themselves. Once you learn how to take care of something that depends entirely on you, the principle of persistence gets seeded, and it has an impact in the work performance and personal relationships.”

Sitting in the office on his last day at New Leaf, James Cooper was completing the exit test and talking about his hopes for the future, “I want to go back to school and work as a truck driver,’ he said. “I want to be successful.”

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