Of all the happy faces in the garden, theirs are always the happiest.
Wearing black t-shirts and infectious smiles you’ll find them. Getting tucked into any task that needs attending. No job is too big or too trivial for this crew.
They are Team Lemonade, a disability service organisation serving the southern Gold Coast and The Tweed.
Ask them and they’ll tell you, they’re just happy to be there. In the company of their fellow team members, lending a hand and contributing in any way possible.
In April of 2020, the group was started by Elaine Johnston, a mother who wanted more for her oldest son, 31-year-old Nathan, who has Downs Syndrome and autism.
“A lot of people let my son get away with a lot when he was young. ‘That’s alright, he’s got a disability.’ Actually, it’s not alright. I’ve taught him right from wrong and you’re allowing him to do what he likes because you feel empathetic for him…We (at Team Lemonade) empower, not enable, that’s a huge thing we do,” says Johnston.
Starting with only her son and two other students just over 18 months ago, today Team Lemonade is comprised of 11 staff and 35 team members. Members that range in ages from 19-39.
They are based out of present-day Kirra Cultural Centre atop Kirra Hill where many of the team members went to school as young children. Johnston says doing so has helped to create a sense of familiarity and belonging which the team members find very appealing.
And while many of the classroom programs revolve around literacy, numeracy, and general life skills, a large percentage of Team Lemonade’s educational opportunities are undertaken outside, in and around the community. These events involve work experience outings, health and fitness instruction at local gyms and volunteer opportunities; one of which is visits to the Southern Beaches Community Garden.
Everything is done based on a lesson Johnston learned almost fifteen years ago from three Aboriginal elders while working as a special needs teacher. It revolved around the Indigenous belief that hierarchy should not be triangular but, rather, circular.
This circular perspective renders the place of actual teaching irrelevant. And, in the end, teaching moments abound. More often than not, when least expected; which is how a wrong turn in her car helped the Team Lemonade director stumble onto the SBCG.
“They learn what they need to learn. We benefit from their knowledge and everyone just learns from each other. All with no (traditional) hierarchy, it just doesn’t work,” says Johnston.
And the director of Team Lemonade is not alone in this belief. Janelle Staggard, who worked with her current boss at the Coolangatta Special School almost 16 years ago and has known many of the Team Lemonade members for 20 years, agrees wholeheartedly.
“I think we’re setting them up to, actually, fail at school,” Staggard says of the current special needs school programs. “What we’re doing is trying to provide a mainstream curriculum to guys that don’t fit into the box.”
And, according to Staggard, the SBCG grounds are a perfect out-of-the-box experience. Perfect from a holistic perspective in that it provides a real grounding opportunity to members that too often find themselves amidst a world of sensory overload.
She adds the garden requires members to get outside, explore and be hands-on. All in the pursuit of learning what can and cannot be grown, built, or improved upon. And better still, all while finding their own path towards becoming contributing members of society.
On this day the members engaged in this ongoing process of discovery include Andrew (29), Tim (34), David (31), Mitch (33), Joel (27) and Nathan (31).
Pruning tools, garden hoses, and a pitchfork for compost turning are the tools of the trade for the day’s excursion. One that also involves a quick lesson in worm composting. With minimal instruction from the three Team Lemonade staff members (done in a ratio of 3:1), the team members divide and conquer.
Except for Mitch, who is new to the program, the others are familiar with the routine and dive right in with the first-timer Mitch, quick to follow suit. Each member has their own section of garden to tend to and with water nozzles set to a light drenching mist, they tackle their assigned plots with gusto.
A gusto including plenty of friendly banter and laughs. Along with the occasional mischievous blast of water directed at their nearest team member. All of which serves as a not-so-subtle reminder: these disabled garden volunteers thrive on the activity and, even more obvious, love each other’s company.
During an equally jovial lunch break in the garden beneath some nearby trees, team member Joel confirms this stating simply, “I enjoy Team Lemonade because it’s a group of people that I get to be next to and talk to.”
It’s an unmistakable common theme running through the entire group and their unbridled enthusiasm maintains the afternoon’s positivity and fun. No one is immune from the buzz. Least of all the team staff members.
Staggard says the Team Lemonade members have helped her learn to “live life without boundaries.” She’s quick to comment that the emotions of the team members are genuine and sincere. They don’t want or expect anything in return in their dealings with others. “They’re just in this present moment and we live so much in the past or in the future. We forget about the right now.”
As an outsider, it’s both a unique and refreshing perspective to find yourself a part of. It also serves as a powerful reminder. One which suggests that the path Team Lemonade has pursued this past year and a half works as intended.
Johnson sums it up this way. “I learned a long time ago tropical fish don’t belong in a gold fishbowl. So, putting tropical fish in a tropical fishbowl, you then see the capabilities of these young people.”
This belief firmly entrenched, the circle becomes complete.
People are helping people. And with everyone learning from each other.