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By Jeff Maisey

Many people during the holiday season contribute to people and organizations in need. Most also decorate their homes with festive Christmas trees and wreaths, and look forward to cooking for family and friends, using the freshest of seasonal vegetables like squash, collards and sweet potatoes. 

One way to wrap this charitable experience into one effort is to pop over to the Eggleston Garden Center in the Riverview section of Norfolk, where you’ll find everything from trees and flowers to fresh produce grown by Eggleston staff and volunteers at its urban farm a few blocks away. 

Eggleston, you should know, is no ordinary commercial garden center. 

Eggleston is a non-profit organization that helps individuals with disabilities gain independence, confidence, and increased feelings of self-worth through on-the-job training and stable, rewarding work opportunities either within our programs or out in the community.

When Eggleston opened in 1955 as the Tidewater Vocational Center, the non-profit served just seven individuals with disabilities. Now it helps close to 1,000 people a year. In addition to work programs, Eggleston also cares for individuals through its residential and day services programs. These programs operate in every city in Hampton Roads and serve folks within various areas of focus from Brain Injury Services to Senior Care – and from In-Home Supports to Group Homes. No matter the need, caregivers meet an individual where they are in their continuum of care and help them live fulfilling and happy lives.

Today, Eggleston operates close to a $30 million annual budget within 33 programs and across 22 locations, and its services are expanding each year.

I recently caught up with Brad Kirkpatrick, Director of Retail Operations at Eggleston Services, to learn more.

 

What can you share regarding how the Eggleston urban farm and your retail location work?

The urban farm grows vegetables over on 26th and Church Street. We harvest those vegetables and we go to farmers markets around town. We go to a farmers market on Hampton Boulevard, Village Days across the street at Lafayette Park, the O’Connor Brewing market on Sunday afternoons, and there are a couple of pop-up markets around town. That’s in addition to what we sell at the Garden Center. 

 

By selling produce at local farm markets you are also raising awareness for Eggleston. Is this part of your mission?

All the work being done at the markets is by volunteers — about 90 of them. They help us plant, harvest, water, and even help us design some of the things at the urban farm.

 

How do you maintain a steady flow of product during all four seasons?

The urban farm grows crops year-round. Right now we’re doing all the fall and winter crops: lettuces, cabbage, turnips, radishes, peppers, okra, carrots. Everything there is ready to eat. 

We do not grow pumpkins. 

This January will plan for spring crop. We’ll be getting tomatoes, more lettuces, and a lot of other things. We generally have 15 or 16 different varieties growing at once.

 

What can people expect during the holiday season?

The main thrust here at the Eggleston Garden Center is flowers, shrubbery, and all that kind of stuff. In late fall, we have pansies galore. Then, of course, come November 20th we will be getting about 680 Christmas trees. All different sizes; everything from 3-feet-tall to 14-feet-tall. All Douglas firs. 

This garden center is very popular with people in the Ghent area. We’re probably the number one seller of Christmas trees that’s not a major brand store. 

Last year, we sold out of our Christmas trees by December 10. 

 

There seem to be fewer Christmas tree lots in the region than in the past. Have you noticed that as well?

There’s actually an explanation for that. It takes about 10 years for that Christmas tree that you stick in your living room to grow.

Ten years ago we had this thing called the Great Recession. A lot of people were hurtin’ and Christmas tree sales dropped like a rock. A lot of people just went out and got an artificial tree so they could save money year after year. 

So Christmas tree farms shrank and disappeared. 

About two years after that the economy stared recovering and the Christmas tree farms started replanting. 

So next year, in 2020, you’re going to see a lot more Christmas trees for sale and a lot more lots. It’s been an interesting turn. 

 

Whether Christmas trees, vegetables or flowers for the yard, people should purchase these items from Eggleston because the money goes to a goo cause, right?

Absolutely. 

Eggleston Services, Garden Center, Urban Farm, and our landscaping department — all the proceeds from these go towards the mission of helping individuals with mental disabilities. We help over 1,000 people every day learn vocational skills so as to thrive in a work environment. That is our primary goal.

Even people who are severely disabled are provided training for vocational skills and given an opportunity to do things for us here at the Garden Center. We have people who help us pot and clean plants, trim bushes…and we have two greenhouses. 

These people are employed. They’re making a wage and they are excited about the work they do.