MARICOPA -- In most communities in the United States, the farm is far removed from the table. Food can travel thousands of miles from the farm to the grocery store before ending up in people’s refrigerators, and growing food from scratch has become something of a rare skill.

“People are not that connected with where their food comes from,” said Lina Austin, executive director of the Future Forward Foundation, or FFF. “Just gardening, period, teaches the lost arts.”

And, according to Austin, gardening also saves souls.

“You can literally address the trauma and help remove it from a human and get them back on track to have a balanced, enjoyable life — that’s really important for the therapy garden,” Austin said.

Austin’s Future Forward Foundation does a multitude of giving in Pinal County, including providing therapy gardens to community organizations in need. Austin understands the power of a vegetable garden lies not only in the bountiful harvests it provides, but also in the care it takes to tend that garden.

Her love of gardening is shared by Lorraine Morrow, founder of the Families United Foundation.

Morrow, also known as the “neighborhood mother,” has five children currently in her care as a foster parent. She owns two properties where she helps homeless and at-risk youths through her foster services and has helped countless children throughout her career.

On her 3.5-acre property in Hidden Valley, she has the beginnings of a sprawling therapy getaway, a vision she calls Aguila Ranch.

One of the ways Morrow hopes to provide therapy to those in her care is by teaching them gardening and food growing skills. When she met Austin in one of Austin’s gardening classes, Austin knew Morrow was a great candidate for a therapy garden.

Morrow spent a few years on the wait list, as it takes funding and time for FFF to create a therapy garden, but Morrow says it was well worth the wait for a garden from Austin.

“Ms. Lina had something that I gravitated to, and we have built a friendship and a love for one another,” Morrow said. “She’s very passionate about people when they’re serious about what they’re doing.”

The vegetable patch

Suddenly, over the course of just three days in early February this year, the vegetable patch came to life. The soil was turned, water systems were laid and fencing was added to protect from pests and rodents. Winter foods were planted like cilantro, kale, celery, spinach, mustard and collard greens, but also summer foods like tomatoes, squash, eggplant, melons and bell peppers.

Austin said her foundation had a tricky growing season in 2020 and is hopeful that this mix of summer and winter vegetables will do well in the hotter-than-usual weather Arizona is experiencing.

Sunflowers, zinnias and marigolds were also planted at the ends of the garden to invite pollinating bees in and add a pop of color. Morrow thought she might put out a couple benches for added relaxation too.

“Now that we have a garden, it means so much for me, because now we have an added piece for everyone that comes here,” Morrow said. “They can learn more about a garden. You hear about it, but to be able to touch, feel, pull it from the ground and eat it? That brings a whole level of meaning to me — for them to learn to eat the good from the land.”

The children in her care and all who visit Aguila Ranch will now have a garden to enjoy and will also reap the benefits of the homegrown, nutritious food it supplies.

Austin says her foundation helps teach nutrition and cooking tips to those who are gifted a therapy garden so they can prepare their homegrown veggies correctly — “because they don’t know what to do with a rutabaga!” she joked.

In addition, Morrow hopes her foster kids will be able to learn new business skills by keeping records of the food grown and working together to sell their produce. It’s all in the name of contributing to the healing of the children in Morrow’s care as part of Families United.

Families United Foundation

Morrow has worked in child services for decades and can recall scenes of neglect and despair vividly from her career in the field. She has worked with so many children, families and adults she says she couldn’t begin to count.

“I’ve never been one to count, and here’s why: All the years that I’ve done this — I’ve been out in the streets in Chicago — you’re really in survival mode,” Morrow said. “I get that question a lot. ‘How many?’ I don’t know. I’ve even had adults in my home. So many times I’ve had people with their children. (I’m) often asked ‘how do these people find you?’ And I had to learn, it’s a gift.”

Aside from her residence where she stays with her foster children, she has been refurbishing the building on her Hidden Valley property. The home was decades old when Morrow and her business partner and friend Hillary McCalebb began work on it, and they have slowly but surely made headway on the home in order to make it a liveable space for more community members in need.

So far, Morrow has torn down interior walls, replaced flooring, added new plumbing, walls and fixtures throughout the home all on her own dime, and with the help of her friends and volunteers. She has already set aside two rooms for future use by clients of Families United, and McCalebb stays in the home full time.

“We at Families United want to provide a home and not just shelter. This has been a process but will be worth the wait for our precious young ladies,” she said.

McCalebb’s main focus with Families United is the equine services and therapies the organization provides. Just north of the vegetable patch are four horses, including a black stallion belonging to Morrow. McCalebb helps those seeking therapy connect with the horses on the property, and in return, she says the horses provide much needed relief.

“You can have a child that won’t speak with anyone, and they will come out here and sit down and have a whole conversation with that horse,” McCalebb said. “They know they’re not going to be judged. … the horses that we put into the therapeutic grant program are actually super special, because they’re so responsive to the people that have those needs.”

In addition to their four therapy horses, the ranch has four pigs, two dogs and two mules. Though they have made a lot of headway on their property, they still rely entirely on personal funding and the kindness of local volunteers. The roof on the future shelter needs replacing, and fencing is key to further expansion of their property.

Morrow has given regular updates on the back-breaking work on her Facebook page.

“Families United Inc. is finally close to completing the renovation! We were working with one-person finances, determination, perseverance and hard work,” Morrow wrote in 2020.

Families United will need continued community and financial support to further its work in Maricopa, but they’ve made a great step forward with the installation of the vegetable patch by FFF.

To contact Families United and find out how you can help, check out the Facebook page or the website at familiesunitedinc.com.

Future Forward Foundation

Austin was quick to divert credit to Morrow for her community work, but Austin’s work in community gardening is just as vital to the at-risk communities of Pinal County. FFF has completed nine therapy gardens over a 10-year lifespan for nonprofits that care for the most vulnerable populations, and they don’t take the work lightly.

“If we do it, we do it with precision quality, because it becomes a teaching tool for people to come out and see how the garden is put together,” Austin said. “Our purpose is not to just be a cute little family backyard garden, this is high production to feed seven people.”

On top of that, FFF teaches 20-40 classes a year in growing and gardening to low-income areas and runs a 3,000-square-foot garden to provide food to the hungry. Previous to the vegetable patch at Families United, Austin and her team worked on a therapy garden for a prison halfway house in Florence.

“It was very successful to build a garden right outside the halfway house that they could work in,” Austin said. “It reduces stress, it builds self esteem, it’s a place to go dump all your stress and be outdoors with plants and nature.”

They also do work on other types of gardens, like an educational food garden planted behind the Central Arizona College culinary kitchen.

Austin hopes that this garden will be one of many good things to come for Morrow and her team of volunteers, and that Morrow will continue to gain community and financial support in the work she does.

“She has nothing but the purest of intentions,” Austin said. “They just don’t let anybody drop through the cracks. These people are phenomenal right there in Maricopa.”

To get involved with FFF or donate to the cause, check out the website at futureforwardfoundation.com.

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Katie Sawyer covers Maricopa and the surrounding area for PinalCentral, including city, education, business, crime and more. She can be reached at ksawyer@pinalcentral.com.