“Story Garden Provides Positive Interactions within Families and Community”

Story Garden is an inter-generational family literacy program that takes place weekly at the flea market in Gallup, New Mexico. Trained facilitators make books, puzzles, art activities and other educational resources available free of charge to families selling and buying goods at the market. Many of these families are low-income and have little access to educational programs and supportive social environments. This market is a hub for the social and economic life of a population dispersed across a vast rural area.

Story Garden began in March 2012. Since then, thousands of children, adults, vendors, and visitors to the market have participated in or supported Story Garden. All of them have shaped and enriched the program through their involvement.

In 2016, ATD Fourth World began a participatory evaluation of the first four years of Story Garden. The aim was to learn directly from community members what they, their children and their community gain from Story Garden.

Fostering agency

People interviewed report that children and adult family members learn by observing the way facilitators interact with children. One grandmother discusses the impact of Story Garden on the way she raises her grandchildren:

“When it comes to you guys, there’s a couple of hours where she can come to you and say, ‘Can you help me read or help me do this?’ and you guys go ahead and help her. It’s different because, as a grandparent, I’m usually in the kitchen doing something. I’m getting to a point where I’m catching myself. I’ll turn off the stove and dinner can wait and I’ll go help her. So I’m learning that as I see what you guys do because I watch how you deal with the kids. I’m learning to put stuff down and say, ‘OK, I can help. What do you want me to do?’ or ‘Can you show me?'”

Parental support and resilience

Many parents and grandparents talked about how Story Garden gives them a chance to catch their breath. They’re enjoying some positive time with their child there. They can also get something done for the family while their child is busy or take a break for themselves.

As one parent explains:

“When our kids go to Story Garden, it’s really nice cause you get that peace and quiet for a second while they’re out there having their fun, and I get some stuff done. It’s nice to know that they’re safe and I trust everybody there.”

One mother said that she really appreciates what the space offers her son who is autistic and doesn’t do well in classroom settings. She was overwhelmed by the challenges of high medical bills as well as the strain and exhaustion of living out of their vehicle. So the people involved in Story Garden give her son the one-on-one attention he needs. Meanwhile she can take a breather and walk around the flea market. Once she feels more relaxed, she can come back to Story Garden and spend time with her son.

A volunteer facilitator noticed:

“It really is an interesting place to spend time with your family even though you don’t have much money to spend. It’s always a place where you can just enjoy and relax and feel safe. It is really a good environment to be around.”

Strengthening family ties

ATD prioritizes disadvantaged families facing multiple challenges. Projects support families so that they do not give up their priorities and hopes. This is the case for families where parents are separated from their children. Story Garden helps them by providing a space for joyful positive times with their children during a painful period of separation, often when children are placed in foster care.

A mother told ATD one Saturday that she was on her weekly visitation with her daughter who is in foster care. The mother talked with a facilitator about her sadness and despair. The facilitator explained:

“Without resources and sleeping in her car nightly, she had nowhere to take her daughter to enjoy a short time together. She said she was happy to find Story Garden. She quietly watched her daughter read and play. ‘It’s great what you guys are doing,’ she said.”

Another family went through two years of separation from their children who had been participating in Story Garden every Saturday before being placed in foster care.

During those two years, ATD brought Story Garden activities to them in their town two hours away, during their supervised visitation with their children. This gave some continuity to the children and support to the parents. Story Garden provided a way for the parents to demonstrate their strengths to their caseworker. The mother said at the time, “We only get two hours of supervised visitation with them per week. It has to be a fun time for the kids.” The facilitator continued:

“She and her husband say that Story Garden helped make these short visits festive. It also helped them hold back their tears until the kids had left with their caseworker so their children wouldn’t see them cry. Today, the family is back together and comes regularly to Story Garden.”

The people ATD interviewed reported a change in the way they spend time with their children, and a change in the way they see others, both within their family and in the broader community.

A father from Story Garden says:

“My family met ATD Fourth World at Story Garden. It made me think about how my family is like a garden itself. And nurturing it is a lot of responsibility. When my family met ATD Fourth World, we had a story of our own. I really wanted my kids to learn even though we were going through hardships and hard times. We’re not the only family struggling. We just want to encourage other families that are struggling to stay strong and keep going.”

Before the Story Garden began, the atmosphere in the flea market was not as friendly or relaxing. A staff member spoke about changes he has seen:

“The relationship between staff and vendors was tense. The vendors stayed to themselves. Parents and staff worried constantly about the children’s safety in the market. Now, actually, since you all have been there, we know where the kids are going, and we know they’re gonna be safe and we know they’re gonna have fun.

“So we, as staff, are more comfortable. And their parents, I think, feel that way too. They can relax a little more because they have that confidence in you all. The vendors are more approachable now. They’re more open towards us. The atmosphere is friendlier. The atmosphere has changed a lot since Story Garden began.”

The ATD evaluation concludes: “Story Garden is truly a place of stories, stories found within our books and stories of life in our community: stories of struggle, hope, solidarity, and change. Each year, the pages of these stories are filled with the participation of all.”

This article is based on the 2016 ATD US evaluation of the Story Garden project. Read the full evaluation, available in English.

More information on ATD in the United States.

More information on similar ATD projects around the world.

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