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Becky Behning has been making a steady recovery since arriving 17 years ago at the DuPage Convalescent Center in Wheaton - in a coma.
"They brought me back," Behning says simply.
Not just back, but back to where she eagerly participates in the Convalescent Center's recreational programs, from gardening to weaving.
This year, as in past summers, Behning won top ribbons in July at the Horticulture Tent at the DuPage County Fair, where she took first place for her cucumbers and second place for her beefsteak tomatoes.
Her award-winning vegetables were among 78 ribbons earned by Convalescent Center residents, all members of its unique Garden Club, who visited the fair on the day the ribbons were awarded.
"I'm so thankful they have this program," Behning says of the Garden Club. "It's nice to be able to achieve something, to have something that I've grown."
Even more satisfying, she says, is to be able to donate some of her produce to the local food pantry, the People's Resource Center in Wheaton.
Officials with the Resource Center figure they feed nearly 3,000 families per month with their food pantry, which is an increase of nearly 24 percent over last year.
"Every one of those families loves to get fresh, healthy produce," says Melissa Travis, food pantry coordinator. "That's whey we're super happy to be getting donations from gardeners like those at the Convalescent Center.
"Plus," she adds, "everything they bring, is beautiful."
The garden at the center is somewhat of a "secret garden," since it is not visible from the front of the building along County Farm Road. However, the more than 50 residents who participate in the Garden Club know how to find it.
They follow a winding walkway lined with rose bushes and perennials toward a fountain surrounded by plantings. Tables and seating shaded by a trellis are nearby, offering visitors a chance to soak up the peace and serenity of the garden.
The vegetable gardens, however, are the focal point, located on 3-foot raised beds, all separated by cement pathways, making them accessible to residents in wheelchairs.
One resident, Robert Scott, remembers working his family garden while growing up in Tennessee. In his plot, he grows tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, and his cherry tomatoes and cucumbers even took third place at the county fair.
"I just like being outside and seeing all the fresh vegetables grow," Scott says.
Likewise, another resident, Brian Cleary, has decided to devote his garden plot to growing herbs, including rosemary, sage, parsley and thyme. Its unique fragrances offer something of a sensory garden to Cleary.
"I like to pick off some of the parsley and eat it," he says, "and I can crush the sage between my fingers."
Recreation Director Henry Parker began the gardening program 28 years ago, in an open field behind the center. Over the years, they constructed the raised beds and have continued to devote more time to the program, seeing the benefits of horticulture therapy.
"The residents like having their own garden space," Parker says. "They love when the produce comes in and being able to share it with others.
"They like the community of being with other gardeners," he adds, "and just being able to talk about something else other than their own health care issues."
Two years ago Garden Club members began drawing weekly visits from Master Gardeners with the University of Illinois Extension Service, like Julie Moore. They not only help tend the soil and educate residents about gardening, they offer presentations during the off-season and help lead gardening field trips.
"The residents who are part of the Garden Club get a wonderful sense of satisfaction," Moore says, "that they, who so often are on the receiving end of giving, are indeed able to help others themselves."