Monday, September 22, 2008

What’s it like to be a…Horticulture Therapy Program Manager?

My actual position is: Horticultural Therapist – I DO it, not just manage it. I also manage – motivate and encourage – volunteers.

What does a normal day look like? Is it consistent throughout the year? If you’ve had this position for a while, how have things changed? 
There is no normal day.  Every day is full of surprises because the 24 female alcohol and drug rehab clients have multiple diagnoses, including mental health issues.  They are young in terms of development, angry, ashamed, and reactive.  HT is activity driven – the activities will vary by week and season.  In the setting with veterans, each day is different because the clients are different day to day in terms of pain, fears, medical concerns, and the “mood” of the facility which varies day to day. 

What other, if any, positions have you held prior to your current job? How did you get to where you are now? 
Goodness, so many! Greenhouse – retail sales and garden work; project manager for a paint your own pottery place’s community service project with a local non-profit ; small business owner with husband for 12 years (computer and software retail store); tax preparer with H & R Block; recreation department program manager; manuscript editor and typist; small business analyst for Bank of America, and many others.

What kind of training/education did you have? What would you suggest? What qualifications/skills/attributes make someone successful in this position?
Answers here relate to my horticultural therapy positions.  I had taken psychology courses in college and was always interested in personality types.  I always enjoyed gardening and became a master gardener 10 years ago.  I went on to become an advanced master gardener which required 50 additional hours of volunteer work.  It came to my attention that an Alzheimer’s unit at a retirement home had a garden and raised beds and was seeking someone to work with residents.  I gave it a try and loved it. During that time I looked into the field of horticultural therapy and read everything I could find, mainly journals.  I attended the state conference of the Michigan Horticultural Therapy Association in 2000.  The “getting to the root of HT” session convinced me that this was a good fit for me.  Some career testing and counseling helped solidify my decision. 
I was offered a job at a mental health hospital as the assistant to a woman I met at that state conference.  A year later I was managing that program.  I was approached by the Michigan Home for Veterans five years ago and offered a job there.  I had very little formal training. 
I attribute much of my success to good luck and good timing.  I have a natural ability and am very flexible.  A calm and gentle manner has helped as well. 
To be a horticultural therapist, one must have an understanding of and passion for the plant-people connection, some skill at crafts, be non-judgmental, be very patient and compassionate, have a deep desire to help people, be physically strong, be very organized, be able to think on your feet, and be willing to work independently.  Course work in psychology and a degree in social work are very helpful. 
I would suggest looking into a horticultural therapy program , either the Denver Institute of Horticultural Therapy or university programs.  I’m not aware of which universities currently offer degrees and course work in HT, but it is a growing field.  Rutgers University and Kansas State have programs. 

What are the rewards in your position? Challenges? What makes a good day for you?
The rewards are believing I’m making a difference and am bringing joy to an elderly person, hope to an addict, beauty to someone confined – to see the smiles, feel the appreciation, realize someone’s day is a bit brighter, their future a bit better.  My challenges are mostly things out of my control – including incompetent and/or unpleasant hospital or clinical staff, interruptions during my sessions, bad weather for outside gardening.  “Good” challenges are coming up with new ideas and finding creative ways to encourage participation.  On a good day I have engaged everyone in the process.  My clients, for that brief time in their day, have been totally engaged in an activity to improve body, mind and spirit.  Improvement in spirit is most important.  If mood, spirit, outlook, hope, and energy have been improved, then it was a good session and a good day.  A completed or beautiful project is secondary, and not essential.

What trends or changes do you foresee in the next 5-10 years? 
This is a growing field, but there are few full time jobs currently.  If insurance companies pay for horticultural therapy, it will be a major breakthrough.  The research is there but insurance companies will not cover it.  I have seen an increase in job opportunities over the past few years.  If one is interested in part time contract work, I believe there will be many opportunities.  It takes creativity and work, but there are jobs waiting to be defined.  HT can be found in many settings, including hospitals, rehab centers, prisons, schools, and retirement homes. 

How could a person find out more about your field?
I’m not sure whether horticultural therapy is included in career journals and publications.  The classic text is Horticulture as Therapy, Principles and Practice, edited by Simpson and Straus.  National and state professional organizations provide opportunities for education and involvement.  The American Horticultural Therapy Association website is  and the Michigan Horticultural Therapy Association website is 

When you were growing up, did you have any interests that you have built into your work?

I’ve always loved flowers but never thought about working with them.  I was going to do something much more exciting like be a writer or a teacher. I graduated with combined economics and political science majors.

What obstacles have you overcome to get to where you are today?
I constantly worked around obstacles to find jobs – had to find work that fit into my large family, our moves, and husband’s desire to own a business.

What was your first job like after college?
I worked at UCLA in the financial aid office.

Posted by Bonnie Speyers on 09/22 at 03:55 PM

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