With tomato vines, herbs like thyme and volunteers all in a row -- that's how the Merryman House's garden grows.

A vegetable garden on the property of the Merryman House Domestic Crisis Center provides not only relaxation and the satisfaction of eating one's own produce, but also a potential "social enterprise" model that could help clients down the road, said Amy Abernathy, Merryman House's director of operations.

"Ideally, in the future … the garden would become a place where clients could have a job and not have to leave the property," Abernathy said. "That in itself removes a lot of barriers."

Clients participate in the planting and harvesting of the garden's zucchini, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, watermelon and various types of tomatoes and herbs. The Merryman House kitchen, which served around 1,500 meals a month in 2018, uses some of the fresh produce. Bennett's Farm, located on New Holt Road, buys the remainder, and profits from those sales will be split between the eight or so clients who work the garden, Abernathy said.

"They're learning skills that they can then go somewhere else and utilize," she said.

A former staff member started the garden last year, and a combination of volunteers and clients have worked to get it growing again this year, Abernathy said.

Volunteers with El Arbol Garden Club, impressed with the work Merryman House does, asked what they could do to help its mission, said Leigh Smith, a member of the club. She and Dr. Jim Gould -- "the truest brains behind our project," Smith added -- put in most of the work hours.

"Although the garden was planted late, it has done very well, and is a multifaceted resource for clients and staff. Hopefully, as the program grows, clients and staff can benefit from learning how easily they can manage a small garden for their own future benefit," said Gould, who became a year-round gardener in his retirement through a course at the University of Illinois.

"Them stepping in was huge," Abernathy said of the volunteers. "They've been very selfless with their time."

The garden has always been intended as a starting place for building a social enterprise, Abernathy said. Survivors benefit from learning about business and developing skill sets that could help them as they work toward financial independence.

The idea isn't unique to Merryman House, Abernathy added.

Thistle Farms, a Nashville, Tennessee, nonprofit that helps female survivors of trafficking, prostitution and addiction, is a nearby example of successful, nonprofit social enterprises. Its Body & Home has grown into a national brand of essential oils, and the Café at Thistle Farms employs survivors, according to its website.

The Merryman House's social enterprise is still in its early days, but Abernathy is hopeful it will continue to grow. To do so, they'll need more volunteers.

Anyone interested in volunteering at the Merryman House should contact lavonna@merrymanhouse.org, or visit Facebook and search for the nonprofit's volunteer page.

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