Master Gardeners create garden-to-table experience for adults with disabilities

Along Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach, atop a small hill, sits a residential community for adults with disabilities. When you get past the gate to Glennwood Houseand look beyond the parking lot, you'll immediately notice the quaint oasis of swinging benches enclosed by vegetables growing in large pots and along walkways.

The garden, which is maintained by the residents, was created in spring 2022 by Monica Mehren Thompson and Robbie Prepas, two UC Master Gardener volunteers of Orange County.

The UC Master Gardeners program is a public service and outreach program of University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources. Through the efforts of more than 6,000 Master Gardener volunteers across the state, the program is a unique driving force of change in local communities.

Thompson and Prepas completed their 16-week Master Gardener training in 2021 and quickly turned to Glennwood House for an opportunity to apply their newly acquired skills. Troy, Thompson's son, was a resident at Glennwood for nine years, making her decision to develop a garden on the grounds an obvious choice.

“This place is truly magical,” said Thompson.

Prepas agreed and shared that the residents play an active role from beginning to end. “We take the residents with us when we buy seeds so that they can choose what they want to grow,” she explained.

The garden has only experienced two plantings so far: spring and fall 2022. When it's time to harvest, the residents eagerly gather to taste the fresh vegetables and herbs. During the week, dinners are prepared by a professional chef, who incorporates ingredients pulled from the garden.

This will soon change, however. Since the residents enjoy the hands-on opportunity to cook so much, they'll now be in charge of preparing lunch and dinner every Friday. To kick start this shift, the residents prepared a huge salad and spaghetti with vegetable marinara sauce. The meal was a big hit and the residents were so proud of their creation.

“This is an all-out, very sophisticated effort with the Master Gardeners,” said Faith Manners, Glennwood House CEO.

Glennwood House is unlike other residential communities for persons with special needs in that it is home to 46 residents. “It's one of the largest supported-living communities in the U.S.,” Manners said, adding that Glennwood has an enormous waiting list.

According to Janet Parsons, development and facility director at Glennwood House, Laguna Beach genuinely embraces Glennwood residents. “When we're out and about, you should just see how warm and welcoming the community is towards our residents. Everyone is always engaging and smiling,” she shared.

Recently, the Laguna Beach Garden Club caught wind of the community garden at Glennwood and made a $1,500 donation to help fund materials.

Janet Chance, president of the Garden Club, credited Glennwood as one of the few places that caters to adults living with disabilities, commending their ability to cultivate a sense of belonging and integrate them into the greater Laguna Beach community. 

While Chance regrets not having the time to become a Master Gardener herself, she attends some of the classes they teach in the Laguna Beach community. “The work they do is remarkable,” she said, adding that the club's recent donation was “one of the best” they have ever made.

Parsons said that it's important for the residents to feel independent. Therefore, the administration and the staff prioritize intentional programming. For example, instead of simple activities like coloring, Glennwood hosts advanced art sessions so that interested residents are learning techniques that will strengthen their artistic capabilities. 

The same idea applies to the “farm-to-table” experience Thompson and Prepas have established. 

“Just because the residents are living with a cognitive disability, it doesn't mean they're incapable of learning new things,” Parsons said. “They will tell you when something is boring or when they're not interested. So, we try to select activities or programs based on skills, personal interests and goals.”

While being recognized for the positive effect the gardeners have on the residents, Prepas quickly interjected that the real positive effect is the one that residents have on her. “I've learned so much from them,” she said. “They're incredible and so much fun to be around.”

Thompson, whose son lived at Glennwood until he passed away earlier this year, describes the Glennwood community as her family. Seeing Thompson's delight while gardening or cooking with the residents, it's easy to understand what she means.

“My husband has always supported philanthropy,” said Thompson. “But he says this feels like so much more than that. Because it is!”

To learn more about the UC Master Gardener program visit