McCullough Institute is Changing Lives - TribPapers

McCullough Institute is Changing Lives

Asheville – Now in its sixth year, the McCullough Fellows program partners UNC Asheville students with faculty advisors and representatives from local organizations to implement a research project they conceive and design themselves. The Fellowship, funded by UNC Asheville’s McCullough Institute for Conservation, Land Use and Environmental Resiliency, provides the funding and materials for a project in one or more of the following areas: land use and conservation; urban planning; sustainable agriculture; resilience and environmental sustainability. The McCullough Institute was established in 2015 by Charles T. McCullough Jr. and his family through a $1 million endowment.

This summer 2021, UNC Asheville’s five McCullough Fellows are conducting their own original, real-world research to answer these questions, and many more.

The following story is about Gabbie Moneymaker, a biology major completing the sustainability certificate program. She  has big dreams to one day build an inclusive, self-sustaining farm, with camps geared towards including people with disabilities.

Project: “The Relationship between Gardening and Mental Health of Individuals on the Spectrum”

Community Partner: Autism Society of North Carolina

Faculty Advisor: Darren Bernal, Assistant Professor of Psychology

When Moneymaker discovered the McCullough Fellowship, she realized she’d found a way to start building her dream, complete meaningful research, and engage with her community, all at once. She is developing and planting a garden specifically for people with autism at the Autism Society of NC office in Asheville, with the help of her fellow McCullough Fellows, and volunteers with autism and their caregivers.

Including those who will use the garden in the creation of the garden is an important part of making sure it’s sustainable, Moneymaker learned. “That means that they’ll be involved throughout, and be more invested when I’m not able to be here, which is really cool, and I think it’s really a good lesson for me professionally,” she said.

Moneymaker, who grew up in a disabled community and has worked as a caregiver, found that there wasn’t a lot of existing research connecting gardening and mindfulness practices with the mental health of people with autism. It’s research she’ll have to conduct herself as the garden—and her project—grows.

Individuals with autism will be able to spend time in the garden to decompress or experience the various sensory-specific plants, like the soft leaves of sage or the bright colors of the flowers. They’ll be involved in planting days, and learn how to water and care for the garden. Other program days for participants will include yoga classes designed specifically for those with special needs, DIY bird-feeder construction, spaghetti sauce and salsa making classes with veggies from the garden, and herbal tea making class.

To measure the impact of the garden on its users, Moneymaker will turn to observational surveys conducted with the caregivers before and after days spent in the garden. “They spend a lot of time with their participants, so they know how they’re doing, and what’s their normal baseline,” Moneymaker said. “I’m going to be taking field notes and just trying to see if there are any notable behavior changes, like they come in and they’re very upset and then they get really excited to water something. Or they’re distressed and then they’re able to go into the pollinator garden and decompress.”

It’s work Moneymaker hopes to continue, even after the McCullough Fellowship is complete.

“I want this to be a stepping stone for my career, and maybe be able to make more of these going forward, especially if I’m able to see that this really is beneficial,” she said.

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