One Volunteer’s Nurturing Journey Helps Kids Flourish

Submitted on Tuesday, 03/16/2021 - 5:50 pm

Soil, potatoes, gardening gloves … not what we typically think of as things to help young children heal from trauma, but with the addition of a kind soul with a big heart, that’s exactly what they became through a gardening project spearheaded by Hull volunteer, Rob Kettle.

The “Growing Together” project started when Shawn O’Grady, Program Director of Hull’s Preadolescent Treatment Program (PTP), was having a conversation with Kettle about him growing up in a family that owned a retail nursery operation in Southern California.

Kettle was already involved with Hull through volunteer initiatives, including the Mentors Matter program where he had been coming in weekly for the past few years to spend time with the kids. He set to work creating a plan to ensure the project was a good fit for both the kids and staff. As a civil engineer, planning, designing and overseeing projects are right up his alley. Teaming up with Nathalia Blacklock, a shift leader in the PTP, “Growing Together” began to take root.

“The kids have completely taken to it. Rob is so committed and able to work with them — recognizing their strengths and weaknesses and what they are capable of developmentally. He is present, attentive and responsive to them,” says Blacklock.


That’s not to be taken for granted, as these kids haven’t always had that type of positive interaction. Hull’s PTP provides care for our province’s most vulnerable children — little ones between the ages of 4 and 12 years old that have suffered intense trauma.

Brain science frames our approach to treatment in the unique, therapeutic, trauma-informed program. Gardening is a sensory strategy that taps into the neuroscience Hull uses. It is a therapeutic activity that creates and holds space for deep relationships to emerge, and building relationships is key to the healing process.

“What‘s growing in the garden is second to what’s growing in terms of relationship development, trust and confidence for these kids,” says O’Grady.

Blacklock adds, “It’s so important for our kids to learn to work with safe and caring adults. Rob really puts time into getting to know the children, their likes, what special treats they enjoy. He is very thoughtful about their unique personalities.”

“Rob is so nurturing and always puts them first. The kids are going to have special memories because of him. He is like a grandpa to them and they are learning these life experiences through him. They adore him and look forward to his weekly visits.”

Every gardening session has “conversation and treats time.” Kettle comes up with a question and the group has an in depth conversation about it. It could be related to life, the garden, or other things. When he posed the question, “What does Growing Together mean?” not one child mentioned the garden. They spoke about team work, respecting one another, helping each other out — life lessons that are so important for all of us.

Kettle has inspired Hull staff to get involved in the project as well, with one team member saying she was going to start gardening with her mom this summer because she enjoyed the experience so much.

Incredibly humble, Kettle shares that he also has done some growing through time spent with the kids. He explains, “Think of the impact of the trauma on their brain development and physical coordination. They may not be able to manage tasks, like picking weeds or thinning carrots, which need physical dexterity. They can be this many years old chronologically, but where are they in their physical development? It can be very discouraging for them. It’s been a huge learning experience for me and has made me look at my expectations.”

These kids struggle in so many ways, due to the trauma they have experienced and what they’ve had to overcome. Kettle has worked hard to gain their trust and is proud to have earned it: “They have a lot of reasons not to trust people. So when they trust me, it feels like a real ‘atta boy’ moment.”

“When you take the time and the kids know you are present and attuned, they realize there are adults that can be trusted to be good, caring, kind people. Rob is one of those people,” says O’Grady. “So many people come and go in their lives. Rob has been one of our longest serving and most committed mentors — always showing up and caring about these kids.”

He recalls one little girl who spent time with Kettle through Hull’s Mentors Matter program. She had so much trauma in her background and no reason to trust anyone. Yet, when Kettle returned to Hull after a short vacation, the little girl ran up to him and said ‘I’ve missed you so much! Not here (pointing to her head) but here (pointing to her heart).’”

It’s been said that to plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow. Kettle has helped these kids believe in someone else and, most importantly, believe in themselves. That speaks to a better tomorrow for all of us.


Growing Together in Hull’s Garden

Farm-to-table eating is both a social movement and a popular restaurant concept these days. The kids in Hull’s Preadolescent Treatment Program (PTP) don’t need to dine out at trendy restaurants to experience it, they are creating it for themselves.

The fresh vegetables they have planted, grown and harvested in the “Growing Together” program are also served to them for dinner. It’s a full-circle moment for the kids and brings a great sense of accomplishment and pride in a job well done.

“The kids have been so excited to watch our food grow and end up on the dinner table. It is pure excitement when we talk about the potatoes that came from the garden being used in the stew,” says Nathalia Blacklock, Hull Services. “We are teaching them how to grow food, cook food and eat healthy.”

The benefits of “Growing Together” extend beyond the young gardeners’ table though. The kids are sharing something important they’ve done with others by taking hampers of their harvest to other programs on campus, and one little boy was excited to pick flowers he had grown to give his mom when she was coming to visit.

“On top of that, it is teaching them to work in a team environment, so one day they are able to do that elsewhere,” adds Blacklock. “When they come to us with so much trauma in their backgrounds, the ability to work together is a very hard task for them. Gardening is extremely regulating and they are nice and calm out there, just enjoying what they are doing.”

Bodies tired from being active in the fresh air, bellies full of healthy food, hearts full with a sense of accomplishment — so much value brought to these vulnerable children. Perhaps heart to heart is a more apt description than farm to table. Hull will forever be grateful to volunteer extraordinaire, Rob Kettle for his vision and commitment to our kids and “Growing Together.”