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Maher Center Expanding its Roots

May 27, 2023May 27, 2023

By Newport This Week Staff | on August 10, 2023

Ryan Davis watering in one of the center’s greenhouses.

At the facility named after James L. Maher, there is once more a center within a center. The reopened Maher Garden Center on Aquidneck Avenue in Middletown, is back to promoting “where plants and people grow.”

Seventy years ago, 13 Aquidneck Island families came together to advance what was, at that time, a revolutionary idea, imagining a new kind of place where people with intellectual and developmental disabilities could learn and enjoy life outside an institution. Among its founding families were James and Mary Maher and their five children.

The Maher Center community includes people who live in 10 supportive residences operated by the center, as well as people who live independently or with their families.

“Living life to its fullest has sort of become our tagline,” said Lynne Maher, the daughter-inlaw, who has been the director for three years.

Over the years, the Maher Center, which serves families throughout Newport and Bristol County has operated a school, a summer camp, a day program and more. As public schools became more inclusive, programming shifted to reflect contemporary life with community-based social and recreational programs, employment and volunteer opportunities.

Graduates of a recent job training program, above, Timothy Gavalakis with staff member Kaleigh McAuley. Left, Seth Walker. Below, Ryan Davis and staff member Michael Ducally.

With the center’s job coaches and training programs and businesses who partner with them to create opportunity, the Maher Center clients are working in grocery stores, retail establishments, offices, and many other workplaces in our communities, including Naval Station Newport and the Naval War College.

The garden center was a warm, welcoming place of greenhouse plants and vegetables, pottery, gifts, gardening accessories and supplies, with multiple greenhouses and a workshop for about 40 years. But the center was forced to close in 2018 because, the director said, it was no longer “economically feasible to keep it open.”

At the time, Sen. Lou DiPalma (D-Middletown) got involved. “The closing was a travesty . . . given the value provided to the folks that worked there and the community treasure that it is,” he said then. “It needs to be a different model based on what [new regulations] Rhode Island is under.”

DiPalma was referencing the 2014 consent decree between Rhode Island and the U.S. Department of Justice mandating programs that serve individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities must be provided more integrated services and activities. Previously, the federal government found that individuals who served in certain facilities were being unduly segregated from other populations in violation of the American with Disabilities Act.

Steps were taken to meet those guidelines, and the garden center officially reopened on April 5.

“It was originally built as a therapeutic and learning environment for our participants and has now blossomed into this fabulous center,” said Maher. “We are trying to get back on track with our original mission to make it a therapeutic environment again in this great space.”

The purpose now is training as well as therapy.

“The goal is for anyone to get jobs here,” said the center’s manager, Troy Reininger. “It is mandated by the state to try to secure employment for disabled clients. Since January, our focus has been to begin a training program for the intellectually disabled, but it will eventually be open to anyone. It will have training for the general public, as well. It can reach a number of different populations.”

Those who attend learn how to plant seeds, bulbs, water, fertilize, propagate, weed and repot. Reininger called the invitingly decorated open rooms and spaces, indoors and out, “a nice vibe.” It is easily as large as any other private nursery in New England.

“We did a lot of build-out in rejuvenating the interior of this retail space, the floor, the shelves, to make it [appealing],” he said.

For sale are gardening tools, pots, fertilizers, hostess gifts, shrubs, perennials, annuals, houseplants and exotics. When asked if the center will be selling trees and wreaths again this Christmas, the resounding answer was, “Yes, of course.”

Mary Jenkins

“The proceeds of everything we sell goes back into our programming,” said Reininger. “We’re just getting started here. We had a soft opening in spring and by next year we will be growing a lot of our own plants and expanding our vocational training programs to get to these underserved populations.”

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