During high school, in the hopes of qualifying for the Bright Futures scholarship program, Ray Odeh began looking for service opportunities in his local community of Sarasota, Florida. He volunteered at several locations before finding the right fit at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, a small, well-manicured garden with subtropical species located on the coast of the Sarasota Bay.
“I was mulching and, well, mostly mulching, which was hard work, but the small change from before and after made a beautiful difference,” Odeh jokingly recounted of his initial responsibilities as a volunteer. Ray credits his early interest in plants to his grandmother’s passion for gardening, but his fascination truly developed during his exposure to the botanical gardens in high school. “I fell in love with all the tropical plants and started taking things home and gardening at my own home in Sarasota.”
Before long, Odeh made changes to the landscaping at his parent’s home and was learning different plant names and needs. He was excited to watch his home garden take shape and took solace in his new pastime, “It’s stressful going through high school, and I think for me it was my place that I could get away from those stresses and pressures.”
Odeh’s newfound adoration for gardening quickly began to spread to other aspects of his life. He decided to focus his Eagle Scout service project around plants and took on the mission of building mobile planter boxes for the Oak Park School in Sarasota, which functions as the center school for special needs in the school district, serving kids Pre-K to 22. Although the school already offered horticultural activities, the outdoor sites somewhat limited participation. In order to complete his project, Odeh solicited donations from local big box hardware stores and with the assistance of a carpenter and Boy Scout troop, was able to construct wheelchair accessible rolling planter beds, making the horticulture program mobile and allowing for greater participation for the students with various levels of disability.
By the time he enrolled in college, Odeh knew he wanted to work with plants, but was unsure in what capacity. “I didn’t have the words to describe it at the time, but I felt that there was something about the mental health benefits of working with plants. I really wanted to figure out what it was and also just get into the field and contribute somehow – to share the feeling that I was feeling when I was in my garden with the world,” recalled Odeh.
In June 2012, Odeh enrolled at the University of Florida as a Plant Science major, but still had the desire to be more involved with people in a therapeutic sense. “I didn’t know the buzzwords for the field–‘therapeutic horticulture’ or ‘horticultural therapy’,” said Odeh. Shortly thereafter, he attended a plant science department barbeque at which Dr. Charles Guy, a professor in the Department of Environmental Horticulture, gave a talk about horticultural therapy and people-plant interactions. Dr. Guy seemed to have the missing link that Odeh had been in search of. In his interactions with Dr. Guy, he learned of the new therapeutic horticulture program forming at Wilmot Gardens and of instructor Leah Diehl, a registered horticultural therapist working on campus. At that time, Diehl and the team from Wilmot Gardens were still developing the program and were using greenhouse space borrowed from the Department of Environmental Horticulture to work with veterans. Odeh connected with Diehl and quickly became an active volunteer in the program.
Throughout his undergraduate studies at UF, Odeh continued to support the therapeutic horticulture program by volunteering at sessions, fundraisers and other garden events. As the program expanded, so did the opportunities for involvement. While volunteering at Wilmot Gardens, Odeh has worked in some capacity with every group, including veterans with spinal cord injury or disease, veterans with bipolar disease, patients with cancer and their caregivers, individuals with chronic kidney failure on dialysis, individuals with drug and alcohol addictions, patients with movement disorders or stroke associated paralysis, patients hospitalized with severe depression, and young adults with autism spectrum disorder and related disabilities. Odeh enjoys working with the diverse populations that participate in the program and feels that doing so has made him more cognizant of others’ conditions and abilities. “Ray does a fantastic job of establishing a positive rapport with our participants. No matter who they are, what their background is, or what issue they are struggling with, Ray makes them feel valued and respected,” said Diehl, director of therapeutic horticulture at Wilmot Gardens.
As Odeh has become one of the longest active and most reliable volunteers, he now occasionally leads sessions and plans activities. Additionally, he has led greenhouse tours, assisted with volunteer outreach and recruitment, served as a liaison between student organizations and the Wilmot Gardens, and educated UF Baby Gators during field trips to the greenhouse. He especially enjoys seeing participants and visitors of all ages engaged and taking part in plant-related conversations.
“People light up when you talk about plants,” said Odeh.
However, Odeh’s involvement does not stop there. While obtaining his undergraduate degree, he assisted with a research project conducted by master’s candidate Christine Penman and Dr. Guy in cooperation with the therapeutic horticulture program at Wilmot Gardens. The project focused on better understanding how engaging in horticultural activities provides therapeutic benefits. The connection with Penman’s project was inspirational and broadened his understanding of research especially in the field of horticultural therapy. Odeh gained the confidence and knowledge to pursue a master’s degree and following his graduation with a Bachelor’s of Science in Plant Science in May of 2016, he began pursuing his own research under the guidance of Guy. ”Meeting Charlie [Guy], meeting Leah [Diehl] and working in collaboration with the Wilmot team and Environmental Horticulture Department, I was able to kind of create my own program and research this topic in a rigorous way,” said Odeh.
Odeh’s research, which builds on Penman’s previous work, investigates the therapeutic potential of art and gardening. Odeh and Guy recruited 40 women from the Gainesville area and randomly assigned them to either the gardening or art group. During the fall 2017 semester, using Wilmot Gardens as the host site, the participants attended one-hour twice-weekly sessions for four weeks. The study looked at cardiac physiology such as heart rate and blood pressure, as well as various self-reported psychometric factors such as the severity of anxiety, depression and stress. Odeh hopes that data from the study will show quantifiable results of the before and after benefits of participation in the hands-on gardening or art activities.
Odeh is scheduled to graduate with his Master’s in Horticultural Science in summer 2018. He hopes to find an opportunity to continue to work as a facilitator of therapeutic horticulture and wants to continue contributing to the field through researching the benefits of people-plant interactions, perhaps in a PhD program. Whichever route Odeh chooses to pursue following graduation, it is clear that he will continue to do so with compassion and vivacity.
“Ray has an outgoing personality and a remarkable way of connecting with people that allows them to instantly feel at ease and comfortable,” said Dr. Guy. “He is a true people person, and this is one reason why he excels working with individuals and groups in a therapeutic horticulture setting. His enthusiasm and love for plants is infectious to all that see him in action.”