Tucked away in a small alley on Chorro Street in downtown San Luis Obispo is the Growing Grounds Farm storefront. This evergreen paradise may be a go-to spot for those who want to pick up a new plant friend, but Growing Grounds is more than just a nursery. It is an extension of local nonprofit Transitions Mental Health Association (TMHA).

As you enter the Growing Grounds storefront, light pours in directly from the open ceiling. Flora floods the vertical walkway, and potted plants line wooden shelves on the wall and hang wherever they fit. 

Along with their storefront, Growing Grounds has two farms—one in San Luis Obispo and one in Santa Maria. The farms each sit on sprawling acres of land, providing space to roam and enjoy the different plant species they grow.

Established in 1979, TMHA is a non-profit serving San Luis Obispo and North Santa Barbara Counties, working to eliminate the stigma and promoting recovery and wellness for people with mental illness through work, housing, community and family support services.

Both farms employ people who have open cases with TMHA and give them the opportunity to expand their job skills and heal through horticultural therapy. The American Horticultural Therapy Association defines therapeutic horticulture as “the process through which participants enhance their well-being through active or passive involvement in plant and plant-related activities.”

Growing Grounds welcomes 20 new employees per year who have cases with TMHA. Alison Chavez | Mustang News

Growing Grounds pays its workers and keeps the farm running while still remaining a non-profit organization.

“We thought it would be the perfect occupation to create for this idea of providing therapy to people who have challenges,” Christene Story, manager of the downtown location, said.

Story has been with TMHA for 15 years, working at both the Growing Grounds storefront and farms. She has training as a job coach to mentor those who use TMHA’s services. The goal is to help build people’s self-confidence and job experience by exposing them to a work environment that is peaceful and low-stress.

“We’ve had a lot of success stories and seen people just blossom,” Story said. “They’ll start here being a little nervous and tentative; anxiety is often the situation. But, after a few weeks of working and really benefiting from a job well done, people start to open up.”

Story and three other part-time staff members work together to run the shop and coach the 20 new workers who come in each year.

“It’s helping the employees as much as it’s helping the mental health workers,” Assistant Manager Linda Neugent said. “Everybody’s happy that comes into the store and that makes us all feel good.”

Story said she partially attributes the workers’ success to the fact that they are paid for the work they do at Growing Grounds. She said it makes them feel like they are contributing to the community.

“One of the first things you might ask somebody when you meet them is ‘What do you do?’ and when you have a job, you can talk about your work you’re contributing,” Story said.

Along with serving the community on the spectrum of mental health, Growing Grounds aids plant restoration efforts in San Luis Obispo County. About 1,000 varieties of plants are grown at the farm, but the organization’s priority is cultivating the county’s native species. Through partnership with the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo and the Morro Coast Audubon Society, Growing Grounds collects seeds and cuttings from local plants in order to grow and restore them.

You can visit Growing Grounds Downtown at 956 Chorro St.

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