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International partners help grow happiness abroad

Camille McCarthy and Aysha Ghadiali
International Programs

A picture of several adults gathered around a raised garden bed.
ProArbol Director Duver Vides (left) leads a training workshop on planting and cultivation in 2019. Raised garden beds allow residents with mobility challenges or in wheelchairs to access the garden plots. (Photo courtesy of /ProArbol)

[Editor’s Note: This story is in recognition of International Day of Forests]

Reinerio Valdelamar tends to a garden he calls “medicine for man,” since “gardens are healers because they take away our anger."

The 79-year-old understands that when we restore our natural landscapes, we restore ourselves. The important link between the outdoors and human health is a major part of how national forests and grasslands provide fundamental benefits to the U.S. That also is why we work with partners at home and abroad in more than 90 countries.

The Forest Service and our nongovernmental organization partner, ProÁrbol, created a community garden program in 2019 in Valledupar, Colombia. Those gardens revitalized Centro de Próteccion del Adulto Mayor Sede Mayales, an assisted living home for seniors.

Eugenio Mateus, 80, is a five-year resident of Sede Mayales, where he takes pride in his garden and the responsibility. 

A picture of several individuals tending to a garden area
Resident Julio Barajas, 77, (left) tends to a garden at Sede Mayales before pandemic restrictions. Barajas now says, “these gardens embellish our homes, and I am surprised by the changes. It fills me with joy.” (Photo courtesy of ProArbol)

“We have been in charge of caring for and growing various species to the benefit of our well-being,” Mateus said. “The gardens give us life and health."

Many of Sede Mayales’s residents are rural farmers, some who lack family support or even experienced homelessness. The added isolation brought on by the worldwide pandemic only exacerbated the threat to their physical and emotional well-being. 

Before the project, the area around the Sede Mayales facility was bare. Now, the wellness gardens are thriving with native flowering plants, vegetables, and an incredible bonus: joy. Two years ago, ProÁrbol, with assistance from the Forest Service, organized 12 technical workshops and trained over 40 residents, staff, and volunteers at Sede Mayales. The residents learned how to cultivate cilantro, garlic, pepper, yuca, plantains, tomatoes, basil and mint.  

After the training, residents put their seasoned green thumbs to good use. Based on their interest and ability, participants care for communal gardens or tend to a single flowering plant.

A picture of an adult watering a flower garden.
Marisela Ardila, resident, watering her flowering garden in the morning at Sede Mayales. (Photo courtesy of ProArbol)

“Technical support from the U.S. Forest Service has been fundamental to improve our organization and contribute to building a greener, healthier, and more friendly city,” said
Duver Vides Avendaño, the director of ProÁrbol, which works to conserve trees and the environment in Colombia’s urban communities. 

These wellness gardens started before the pandemic, but now offer an added benefit of providing a socially distanced outdoor escape. 

Alberto Rivero Marriaga, 72, said he doesn’t have time to get bored. 

“Every morning my job is to sweep, water, and then sow seeds,” he said. “Yesterday, I planted passion fruit and sunflowers.”