The 9,000-square foot commercial greenhouse behind Central Bearden Baptist Church once grew tropicals and other plants for office spaces, but for the last several years it sat empty and unused. Now, church member Walter Cromer and other volunteers hope to watch the greenhouse blossom as The BLOOM Center (Building Lives Through Outreach and Occupational Ministry), a place where youth with disabilities and developmental challenges can learn the art of growing and tending plants and flowers.
Cromer is the founder of an agricultural technology startup, Eden Concepts, and is also in the local master gardener’s program. He was recruited to be part of the “visioning” team the church put together when it acquired the property. The offices attached to the greenhouse would be integrated into the church’s needs, but that still left one very large, very specifically purposed facility for which the church had no plan.
But that didn’t mean there wasn’t a use for it.
Cromer remembers thinking, “God, you gave us a greenhouse, now what do you want us to do with it? How can we use it to help people?”
Central Bearden’s catchphrase is “Christ-centered and community-focused,” so one of the first steps was to see what the community needed. Working with church administrator Gary Schmeider, Cromer reached out to the University of Tennessee, speaking with professionals who specialized in horticulture therapy.
Cromer says the UT experts were particularly helpful at describing other horticultural outreach programs nationwide and at helping them tailor their focus. The group decided to begin by focusing on flowers, not food, because there are other ministries growing edibles in the community. The greenhouse would become a training site for youth to gain confidence and skills that could help them get employment in the garden center and floral industries.
He knew a special education teacher, Jane Coggins, who was retiring from Bearden High School and looking for a project. She became very involved, and within a day had another teacher involved as well.
“So many God things” are involved with the venture, Cromer says, in that once they decided to move forward with that vision people who can help have appeared at just the right time.
Right now, the plan is that beginning around October, a group of Bearden special education students will come with their teachers and aides to work at the greenhouse a few times a week.
“We’re cognizant of wanting to do this right,” Cromer says. “This is the phase I’m calling ‘Start the BLOOM.’”
He is experimenting with other ways to extend the greenhouse use. He has been picking up “floral rescues” from area Kroger stores – orchids that have gone droopy or miniature roses that haven’t bloomed. The idea is that as these are nursed back to health they will be incorporated into the church’s visitation ministry.
“Everything is volunteer-driven,” he says. Girl Scout troops have been out to paint and clean. The church’s young summer campers have been in to plant seedlings. The BLOOM Center is also encouraging families to pick up packs of seeds with their school supplies and bring them back to the church’s seed bank.
Supportive businesses include Kroger, ACE Hardware and their neighbor Crown Cleaners. An engineer from UTK helped check out the greenhouse systems and found them solid. Congregation members who are licensed electricians have volunteered some small-job work. Cromer hopes the greenhouse can ultimately have a low carbon footprint and use as many sustainable practices as possible.
Cromer met his wife, Janet, 30 years ago at Central Bearden, in a singles group. They have three children; one of them, Rachel, is a photographer and graphic designer who created the center’s eye-catching logo.
Cromer is eager to see what comes from The BLOOM Center. He was happy to lend a tour to Stephanie Cook, the city of Knoxville’s ADA coordinator, who saw one or two things that needed tweaking.
“We don’t know where this is going, but it has sparked an interest in a disability ministry,” he says.
There will be a workday on Saturday, July 27, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Volunteers are welcome – even those without green thumbs. Cromer is also looking for donations of potting materials and other garden necessities. Central Bearden is at 6300 Deane Hill Drive. For information, follow The BLOOM Center on Facebook or email Cromer at firstname.lastname@example.org.