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Sprechen sie San Luis Obispo?
updated: Feb 26, 2011, 10:00 AM

By Billy Goodnick

Sometimes I think Ed is just out to make me feel guilty. It's not enough that every two weeks since 2008 I've had to come up with a thousand Pulitzer-worthy words and images to educate, entertain and transform the lives of my Santa Barbara readers. (Note to award committee - I've had my mantle reinforced, so there's no need to put off your decision for 2011.)

To add to my burden, Ed the Intrepid recently expanded his cyber-reach into new territories, where denizens practice their mysterious rituals. So now I feel pressured to investigate topics that Santa Lewis Obispites and Venturinians will find interesting.

So a few weeks ago, after finding a handy English to SLO phrase book and suffering through the battery of inoculations, I set off to points north on a sunny Friday morning, slowed only by the occasional border crossing check point. Two days later, I'd put on a few hundred miles (I made it to where the Bering Strait land bridge once connected Cambria with Asia), and crammed my notebook and camera with lots o' groovy stuff. I'll write about all of my adventures, eventually, but for now, let me tell you about Transitions Mental Health Association and the great work they're doing for folks in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.

As described at their website, Transitions is "a non-profit organization committed to reducing the stigma of mental illnesses, maximizing personal potential and providing innovative mental health services to individuals and families in need."

Stats: They operate 27 programs at more than 35 locations, reaching 2000 people and 1500 families. They help with housing, employment, case management and life-skills for teens and adults. They also provide support and education to the families of their clients.

A bit of background: I discovered Transitions last spring, after serendipitously parking across from their gift shop in downtown SLO, on my way back from the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show. While popping in to pick up a "sorry I left you with all the household responsibilities for a week" gift for Lin, I noticed a flyer describing their horticultural therapy programs and promised myself to dig a little deeper one day.

Greeeeeeeeeeen Acres

So on my recent road trip, I made appointments with a few of their key peeps and got the scoop, starting with Ariela Gottschalk, Program Manager at the Growing Grounds Farm, in Santa Maria. Ariela, who for years managed and marketed the Hollywood Farmers Market, now runs Transitions' five-acre spread at 820 West Foster Road, supervising clients who have been referred by County mental health agencies. When I arrived, she and her crew were doing their warm-up stretches as chickens ranged free, serving as nature's pest control.

The farm has a cute-as-the-Dickens shop, selling whatever's fresh to locals (or travelers in the know) who regularly stop in for produce, cut flowers, and just-laid eggs. Ariela says there's a lot of demand for vegetable starter transplants for home gardeners. "We have a lot of things people can't get at Home Depot, like over 20 varieties of hard-to-find tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and lettuce," she boasts. "We plant a lot of unique seeds that come from smaller seed growers."

Ariela is proud that everything is grown using organic methods, giving customers the same benefits of shopping at a local farmers market and helping support a good cause. Meanwhile, the participants earn a paycheck while enjoying the benefits of getting out of the house and exercising outdoors. Visitors are always welcome at the farm, but be sure to check the store hours, which at this time are limited to noon to dusk on Thursdays.

Plants for Your Landscape

Transitions has a similar program right in SLO, but instead of produce, employees grow a pretty fabulous selection of landscaping plants at the Growing Grounds Farm and Nursery, 3740 Orcutt Road. I made a point of pulling into their parking lot right at lunch time, since Craig Wilson, who runs the facility, told me they'd have their wood-burning pizza oven stoked -- that's what I call an employee benefit package.

I headed across a wooden footbridge that crosses a clear, free-flowing creek, into a tree-shaded picnic area. A few dozen employees patiently waited for their bubbly-hot pizza. Meanwhile, I got the scoop from Craig. The employees who are referred to the program deal with the ongoing challenges of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, or major depression. Craig told me that they receive valuable services: job-skill training that helps them move into mainstream jobs, daily contact with on-site rehabilitation personnel, and experience working in all aspects of wholesale nursery operations (and the occasional culinary feast).

The landscape plants I saw were as healthy, strong, and as beautiful as any wholesale grower I've visited. Although the nursery sells primarily to gardeners and contractors, the public can pick out their own plants every third Thursday, from 2 until 4. If you have a landscaping project coming up, ask your landscaper to start their plant search at Transitions. Craig says, "Customers aren't just supporting the nursery - they're helping people thrive, too."

Finishing Touches

I wrapped up my day by stopping where I'd started a year ago. Christine Story greeted me at the Downtown Store, a sliver of a space built into what was once a midblock driveway at 956 Chorro Street.

The gate and archway are eye-catching and there's always something colorful at the sidewalk, like these potted succulent and flower arrangements.

I like the mix of merchandise they carry: pots and jewelry from local craftspeople, gazing globes and other garden ornaments, sun hats and tools for working in the garden, and gift plants to present to your gracious hosts when you're invited over for dinner.

Some of the prettiest plants come from Transitions' own nursery - there are also shelves of tender, crispy veggie starters from the Santa Maria farm.

I was particularly smitten by this rusty, lusty garden wench, standing a voluptuous three-inches tall, ready to gaily prance about your garden, or arise from a flowerpot. I brought one home for me, and another for a favorite client.

Lin and I lived in SLO while I was studying landscape architecture at Cal Poly from 1982 to 1985. I have fond memories of a culturally rich, art-filled, and enlightened town. Experiencing some the great programs and services Transitions Mental Health Association provides reaffirms my high opinion of a great community and makes me look forward to lots more stories - inoculations and strange customs be damned.


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