BLOOMINGTON — Sometimes, a garden grows more than zucchini, green beans and onions.
Sometimes, a garden grows relationships.
That's the idea behind Christopher's Garden. And the family behind it hopes other Central Illinois gardeners will do the same thing.
Christopher Sullivan, 22, has severe Down syndrome and autism and doesn't communicate.
But he loves to spend time in the family vegetable garden that he tends with his parents, Chuck and Maureen R. Sullivan, in the backyard of their home in the Crestwicke subdivision south of Bloomington.
This summer, they expanded what they now call Christopher's Garden. Extra produce, beyond what the family uses, is being donated to Marcfirst that has programs to support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, such as Down syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy.
"We did it (expanded the garden) specifically to give the food to someone who could use the help," said Chuck Sullivan. "Christopher opened our hearts and minds."
Staff and residents of Marcfirst homes are using the vegetables to prepare side dishes for residents, becoming a part of Marcfirst's program to make sure its residents eat healthy.
Marcfirst — represented by staff members Jennifer Randol and Elaina Von Qualen and residents Patty Pappalivata and Lawson Peasley — picked up their third donation from Christopher's Garden on Wednesday, with more donations planned. The donation was three bushel baskets of zucchini, tomatoes and onions.
Along the way, relationships are developing between the Sullivans and Marcfirst staff and residents.
"It's really helpful for our homes and our residents," said Randol, director of Marcfirst's residential program. "And it's a great connection for Christopher."
Christopher is considered non-verbal, his parents said. After he finished watering the garden on Wednesday, as conversations continued around him, he made a humming sound as he carried around his Sheriff Woody doll.
"He makes sounds to calm himself," his mother said. Occasionally, he repeated the sentence, "I know, I know." His mom thinks it may be his way of joining a conversation.
His father created a book for him with pictures of different food and restaurants; his personal responsibilities, such as washing his hands, brushing his teeth and getting dressed; his household responsibilities, such as getting the mail, taking out the garbage and working in the garden; places to go, such as the park, bowling or the store; and going to bed.
Christopher and his parents point to pictures in the book to facilitate communication. It works. Christopher is learning to associate the pictures with real-world events and places and is learning to follow instructions.
"This lets him have more choices in life," said Chuck Sulllvan. "It's also teaching him his responsibilities."
"Christopher can't do much for himself," he added, but the Sullivans are working on his communication and are trying to get him more comfortable with others.
The Sullivans made a conscious decision to do this in Bloomington-Normal, relocating from the Chicago area in July 2015, because they found as they checked out different communities that Bloomington-Normal was friendly to people with disabilities.
"His favorite thing is to be out in the community," Chuck Sullivan said. "We want him to be a part of the community."
In 2017, his parents put a garden in their backyard. "We had a tremendous harvest," said Chuck Sullivan. "We had enough food for ourselves, our neighbors, our family and my wife canned and we had veggies all winter."
The Sullivans decided this year to give back to others in need by expanding the garden, naming it in Christopher's honor and donating extra produce to Marcfirst.
While the Sullivans said that Maureen does most of the work, Christopher helps with weeding and harvesting. Watering twice a day is his primary responsibility.
"He's participating," his father said. "If he wasn't happy, he would walk away."
Chuck Sullivan went to Marcfirst and Randol said the agency would accept vegetables on behalf of the 51 residents of Marcfirst homes.
Since June 29, three donations have been made of zucchini, green beans, onions, tomatoes and potatoes.
"It's been helpful for meal preparation because we have fresh produce," Randol said. "We have healthier options. We are trying different recipes and the residents have learned that they love them."
"It comes from someone's garden so that means so much more," Randol continued. "This has been a great connection. It's opened up friendships. We are grateful for the gift."
Asked what she thought of Christopher's Garden, Pappalivata said, "Good. I want one."
"I like it," Peasley said of the donated vegetables.
But what does Christopher think?
"He sees food from his garden being handed to other people," his father observed. "He hasn't stopped us. Christopher, in his own way, is telling us to keep going."
The Sullivans intend to do just that and challenge other Central Illinoisans to expand their vegetable gardens next year and donate their surplus to nonprofit agencies that could use it.
"Nothing feels better," Chuck Sullivan said, "than helping someone in need."
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Contact Paul Swiech at (309) 820-3275. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_swiech