The Marin association cultivates stability through gardening

A lesser-known but delightfully maintained garden center in San Rafael plans to open for public tours and potential community involvement later this summer or early fall.

Tours of the GEM Garden Program will highlight its role as a workforce and life skills training center for clients of its nonprofit parent company, Integrated Community Services. ICS serves people with disabilities, including people with mental health issues.

GEM is short for “Growing Excellence in Marin”.

“People can just visit the garden, or they can sign up to volunteer, or they can interact with our customers who work there,” said Abby Yim, executive director of ICS. “They can also learn about the diversity and inclusiveness of our program.”

About 20 of the organization’s approximately 350 clients work at the garden, which is in a rented space in a corner of Mount Tamalpais Cemetery in San Rafael. The agency also has a garden at the Homeward Bound association in Novato.

Veronica Denny, garden coordinator, said clients are considered interns and are paid by the hour.

“They work with the plants from start to finish,” she said. “From seeds to potting to planting and harvesting.”

Customers also perform a drying process for plants such as English Lavender, Calendula, Yarrow, Chamomile and Rose Geranium. Under a contract with ICS, the dried botanicals are delivered to Botnia Skincare in Sausalito for use in the company’s products.

Vegetables and fruit grown in the garden are either donated to customers to take home or donated to Homeward Bound or other Marin agencies that provide food to people in need.

“Working here has been a big part of my recovery,” said Casey Gauer, a former ICS client who was hired as a garden coordinator. “I found a home, a community, a connection when I came here.”

About six years ago, Gauer, 42, of San Rafael was homeless, aimless and drugged before county social workers referred him to Integrated Community Services. Within about six months, he was working in the garden and making sense.

“The stability of being part of something has been very important to me in my recovery,” Gauer said. “ICS offered all of that – I felt really safe here.”

ICS has 88 staff members who are responsible for working one-on-one with each client to arrange services based on disability and need. Beyond gardening and job training, ICS also offers help with housing, financial education, cooking, college applications and volunteering.

“We work with all disabilities and work with them individually,” Yim said. “We do wraparound services.”

Besides the county, other frequent referral agencies are the Golden Gate Regional Center in San Rafael, for people with developmental disabilities, and the California Department of Rehabilitation office in Novato.

Once garden interns have mastered the job skills, they can be placed into employment with a grocery store, commercial garden, or other agency such as Goodwill Industries. Over the past six years, Gauer said, he’s worked with dozens of clients who have gone on to carve out lives and careers for themselves, even after starting out with only limited options.

“The values ​​that GEM represents are inclusion, acceptance and open-mindedness,” Gauer said. “I am giving back what was given to me — to be involved in a positive program that provides people with employment development.

Integrated Community Services is funded by a combination of local, state, and federal grants as well as individuals, corporations, and foundations. The agency is constantly fundraising so it can pay its staff better salaries in the highly competitive job market, Yim said.

The ICS website is connectics.org

Integrated Community Services Gardening Program intern Angela Garcia harvests lavender in the garden in San Rafael, Calif., on Friday, July 8, 2022. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

Terri S. Tomasini