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Mickey Rathbun: Riverside Industries celebrates 50th anniversary with sunflowers

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Thursday, July 26, 2018

To commemorate its 50th year of service, Riverside Industries of Easthampton (RSI), an organization that serves individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, is distributing free sunflower seeds to gardeners. RSI is asking friends and supporters to plant the seeds in order to blanket the region in sunflowers as a sign of the agency’s golden anniversary. Its sunflower-themed 50th-anniversary campaign, “Strong roots. Still growing,” reflects RSI’s ongoing commitment to empowering its clients to live rich and full lives. Van Gogh would have smiled.

Charlene Gentes, RSI president, said the idea for sunflowers came from what the sunflower resembles: hundreds of seeds surrounded by the bright yellow flower petals. “The community supports and embraces us, and we’re part of the community,” she said. “Sunflowers are happy, big and beautiful. They embrace so many qualities of community.” If you’ve ever seen a field of sunflowers, you know what a heart-lifting vision they create.

Riverside grew like a sunflower itself. It began in 1968 when a small group of parents of children with disabilities were concerned that the children had no future prospects after they graduated from high school. Working with a local priest named Father Wagner, they took over two abandoned school buildings in Leeds that the city sold them for 50 cents. Tradespeople from the local community donated their time and effort to renovate the space. Riverside created a small manufacturing business there to employ young adults with developmental disabilities. It also placed clients in jobs at local colleges, retail stores and other businesses.

In the 1970s, when residential institutions like Belchertown State School closed their doors, “de-institutionalized” people with disabilities returned to their local communities with a range of physical and cognitive challenges. Many were not able to work. Riverside provided an array of services for the de-institutionalized community, including employment opportunities.

By the mid-1970s, RSI needed more space for its growing number of clients. It purchased One Cottage Street in Easthampton, from J. P. Stevens Co. for $1 and moved its operations to the new site. Built in 1859, One Cottage Street was once a mill producing battens, twines and elastic thread using waterpower from a dam at the mouth of Nashawannuck Pond. The large building, 165,000 square feet, now has 85 tenants, including artists and craftspeople.

RSI launched a new program in 1981 called Day Habilitation services to offer personalized therapeutic services in a communal setting. These include occupational, physical and speech therapy and life skills development. “The program helps people meet their daily living objectives,” said Gentes. “For some, this might mean learning how to cook.”

RSI also has a program for community-based day services, creating opportunities for its clients to volunteer at over 30 local businesses. “People learn job skills, and some go on to paying jobs after they’ve learned the right skills,” explained Gentes. “The program also helps people to explore different opportunities. They also can come back to the main campus for classes in art, music and farming.”

RSI now serves approximately 270 individuals, and has served over 3,000 people overall. Its clients come from 33 towns in western Massachusetts.

More than 30 farms, garden centers, vineyards and schools in western Massachusetts are planting stands of sunflowers to symbolize RSI’s impact on individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities. The University of Massachusetts, which employs a number of Riverside clients, has planted close to 5,000 seeds.

The sunflower campaign also will feature tours of RSI’s headquarters at One Cottage Street and social media posts highlighting the agency’s work. A 50th-anniversary party Sept. 16 will feature a performance by the Young@Heart Chorus and other entertainers. The event will take place at Millside Pond in Easthampton from noon to 4 p.m.

Free seeds can be picked up at these Easthampton locations: Amy’s Place, The Brass Cat, Canon Real Estate, Cleary Family Dentistry, Crooked Stick Pops, Finck & Perras, Manchester Hardware, Mt. Tom’s Homemade Ice Cream, PaintBox Theatre, Riverside Gardens – Easthampton Farmers Market, Riverside Industries office, Shelburne Falls Coffee Roasters (Easthampton location only) and Tandem Bagel Company — all in Easthampton.

Seeds also are available at most branches of Easthampton Savings Bank and Greenfield Savings Bank, Pioneer Valley Popcorn in Shelburne Falls, Webber & Grinnell Insurance in Northampton, the Westhampton Public Library and Teddy C. Smiarowski III Farm Stand and Creamery in Sunderland.

If you have a sunny spot, plant a sunflower garden in honor of Riverside Industries and the invaluable work it does in our community.

Parking lots to gardens

If you’re interested in creating pollinator-friendly habitats in urban areas, you might want to tour this group of newly installed pollinator habitats situated in a West Springfield shopping area. Participants will learn about salt-tolerant plants, three-season host/nectar plants and designing with native and cultivated plants. Plant lists and resources will be provided. The tour will take place July 9, 4 to 5:30 p.m. at Flag Fables, 1285 Riverdale St., West Springfield (parking in back). There is no charge, but preregistration is required.

Contact Larri Cochran at llcochran@gmail.com for more information. To register, go to: wmmga.org and see the events calendar.

Touring two stand-out gardens

On July 13, Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston is sponsoring a trip to visit two New Hampshire gardens: Bedrock Gardens in Lee and Fuller Gardens in North Hampton. Bedrock Gardens is a former dairy farm that has been transformed over the past 30 years into a landscape of diverse plant collections, varied landscape design, hardscaping and an extensive sculpture collection made from repurposed farm equipment.

The garden includes many structural features including paths, an espaliered fence, an arborvitae hedge and a pergola. The beds have many unusual specimens of perennials, trees and shrubs.

 Fuller Gardens is a public botanical garden that was once part of the seacoast summer estate of Alvan T. Fuller. It's an oasis situated a stone's throw from the ocean. The gardens feature horticulture at the highest level, with thousands of rose bushes and hundreds of varieties that bloom all season long. Formal English perennial borders, a Japanese Garden and a tropical conservatory are all framed by sculpted hedges. 

Member $150, Non-member $175; includes transportation, admissions to Bedrock Gardens and Fuller Gardens, guided tour of Bedrock Gardens and box lunch. The tour will leave Tower Hill at 8 a.m. and return at 5 p.m.

Daylilies galore at Tower Hill

On July 14, Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston will be all about daylilies. From 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Debbie Carpenter will give a presentation entitled "Daylilies and their Friends," giving general information about daylilies and showing perennials that make good companions in a landscape. Following the presentation Carpenter will demonstrate dividing a daylily clump. After the demonstration there will be a free raffle of the divisions.

Carpenter is a retired high school biology and horticulture teacher, New Hampshire master gardener and life-long home gardener.

 Following Carpenter’s presentation, from 1:30 to 4 p.m., the New England Daylily Society will present an exhibition of the most extraordinary, best-groomed daylilies grown by enthusiasts from all over the region.

Amherst shade tree brigade

On July 14, from 9 a.m. to noon, the Amherst Public Shade Tree Committee will be planting trees along Palley Village Road by the corner of Old Belchertown Road as part of its monthly Second Saturday Tree Plantings. Look for the yellow town truck. Bring a shovel if you have one and all the friends you can muster.  All ages welcome!  Contact us at shadetreecmt@gmail.com for more information.

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at mickey.rathbun@gmail.com.