Vanessa Diffenbaugh's new novel, The Language of Flowers, echoes the experience of one foster youth who found a measure of joy in a community garden in Western Massachusetts.
At 12 years old, Deja Eddington was too shy to talk about her past. Moving to a new community in Massachusetts after having been in foster care and separated from three of her siblings, she was hesitant to open up to others about her family history.
"I didn't know how to open up because I didn't know what they would think about me," says Eddington.
Her trouble communicating was very similar to Victoria Jones, the main character in the new fiction novel The Language of Flowers, who has a difficult time relating to others while in and after emancipating from foster care. Victoria spends her life in foster care, bouncing from home to home and unable to truly connect with any of her foster families. At 18, Victoria ages out of care and is left to sleep in a public park in San Francisco.
Victoria's character represents the 408,000 children in foster care and the 29,000 who emancipate from care each year, according to the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. Her experience with the transition represents the one in four former foster youth who end up homeless.
Yet she begins to grow when she starts planting a garden in the park and begins a relationship with flowers. After discovering that flowers have certain meanings and being recognized for her work, Victoria starts to communicate with others through this language and searches for a second chance at happiness.
"Victoria was a prickly character," said Vanessa Diffenbaugh, author of the novel. But Diffenbaugh says Victoria's tough exterior began to fade away through her cathartic interaction with the flowers. Victoria's communication with flowers represents what is possible when youth find a sense of connection.
"Everyone needs something they're good at. You want your kids to be passionate and figure out something they're good at," said Diffenbaugh, who is a foster mother.
The garden gave Victoria a sense of connection and less fear of communicating with others, the same kind of experience that Deja Eddington had working in a garden.
Eddington says she gained confidence and connection when she began working in the community garden at Treehouse Communities, an intergenerational community for kinship and adoptive families who provide homes to children who have experienced foster care and elders 55 or older who want to be extended family members. Treehouse provides therapeutic, educational and recreational services to children and their parents, and the garden is one of the programs. Moving from within Massachusetts to the Easthampton community with her adoptive mother and siblings as a teen and working in the garden with other youth who had experienced foster care and adults who were willing to listen made Eddington blossom.
"I'm actually glad my mom forced me to go there. I'm actually glad I got to learn more about different plants and vegetables and see how things actually grow. There is always someone down there to talk to," says Eddington, now 17, recalling all the Wednesdays she spent in the plant and vegetable garden with about five other kids and four adults.
"It's just a time to have fun and talk and enjoy the view. I found out other kids have a family like me, and now we talk all the time."
Eddington says she and her seven brothers and sisters were removed from their biological parents' home when she was 3 years old. Relatives reported to the police and the Department of Social Services that the children weren't being treated properly, and she was immediately placed in the care of her now-adoptive mother, along with three of her siblings. Although three other siblings are living elsewhere, she now also lives at Treehouse with three of her older adoptive siblings. Working in the garden and having others accept and relate to her family Eddington says made her feel more comfortable and confident communicating with others.
Fostering connections is what the administrators of Treehouse Communities say is the purpose of the intergenerational garden that they have been running for 10 years.
"To have an intergenerational community garden they are investing in each other's lives as much as they are investing in the garden," says Judy Cockerton, Founder and CEO of Treehouse. "The garden is a place where the kids are able to be with people who they are able to form relationships with. You're planting the garden, planting the seeds, sharing food, sharing recipes and building relationships, as I think [Victoria] did with her flowers."
"The problem is foster youth don't really have this network that other kids have," says Diffenbaugh, who believes individuals and communities like the one at Treehouse can build a strong support system for foster youth, who often have more limited human resources.
Eddington says the nurturing interactions she had in the garden are experiences that will continue to flourish in her life.
"It helps you connect with others so when you go out into the real world, as they say, it helps you talk to people and connect," said Eddington. "It was nice that people accepted you and didn't judge the book by its cover."