In the summer of 2017, Monica Marrocco, then a sophomore at the University of Florida, was asked by a friend what she wanted to do with her life. Like many young college students, Marrocco did not have a definite answer and replied, “I want to work with plants and people and do yoga.” Little did Marrocco know what seemed like a trivial response at the time would change her educational path. In reply, her friend informed her about Wilmot Gardens at the University of Florida and the therapeutic horticulture program. “I didn’t know that therapeutic horticulture was a thing,” said Marrocco, who subsequently emailed the director of the program, Leah Diehl, to learn how she could become involved.
By November 2017, after completing the required training, Marrocco began to volunteer in the therapeutic horticulture program, working with the autism spectrum disorders group. Marrocco enjoys her time with this particular population and sees value in the program for participants and volunteers alike. “Having a specific place [for participants] to learn how to care for plants adds more skills to their toolbox so that they can better contribute to society,” said Marrocco. “The stigma is that these individuals are not capable of giving back, but with a program like this we are changing that mindset. All of the participants are extremely intelligent and it has changed my understanding of people with autism spectrum disorders. The participants truly teach me things that I don’t know about plants.”
Marrocco feels that volunteering in the sessions has improved her wellbeing. She has found camaraderie in the greenhouse with fellow volunteers and participants that share her passion for plants and nature. “Coming to the sessions as a volunteer has motivated me to stay on my own path of healing and recovery,” said Marrocco, who has been recovering from anorexia since high school. On her path to healing, during high school, she began growing sunflowers and found solace in the experience. “That experience starting changing everything for me. Everything I love to do slowly changed to be centered around being outdoors in nature with plants,” recalled Marrocco, who relates caring for plants to caring for her own human needs. Over the next two years, before relocating to Gainesville for college, her connection with nature began to sink in and become an integral part of her personal lifestyle and approach to healing.
Marrocco began her studies at UF in 2016 pursuing a degree in biology and pre-med with the hopes of one day becoming a doctor. After completing two semesters she realized, “The only part that I liked about biology was the plants.” Her desire to be a doctor stemmed from wanting to help people, especially in the realm of mental health, resulting from her own personal experiences with anorexia. Her involvement in the therapeutic horticulture program and passion for plants influenced Marrocco to tailor her field of study in hopes of pursuing horticultural therapy as a profession. “I’m so glad this place exists because my life has changed drastically for the better because of it,” she said. Because UF does not presently offer educational courses in horticultural therapy, Marrocco began to form her own approach to best position herself to pursue the certification requirements after graduation. She is presently an incoming junior majoring in psychology with a minor in environmental horticulture.
“Monica is a wonderful part of our team. She is warm, friendly, and flexible. Our participants are always happy to see her and so am I,” said Diehl of her time spent with Marrocco.