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Popular volunteer spot, Artful Gardens, closes down

Artful Gardens, a popular volunteer spot among FGCU students, has been shut down. Due to a zoning violation, the not-for-profit organization was forced to let go of all but one employee and close its doors for good on Thursday, June 23.

The organization, a playground and garden designed to teach special needs children important life skills, saw hundreds of volunteers from FGCU. Not only did Artful Gardens provide therapy for children in need, but teenagers with disabilities also had opportunities to work there, either in the garden or the playground.

Ryan Dovey, a former volunteer at Artful Gardens, spent approximately 20 hours in the last six months at the organization. He appreciated how open and accepting the employees were to children of all kinds.

“My favorite thing about Artful Gardens was how they gave a fair chance to those in our community suffering from disabilities,” Dovey said. “They offered jobs to special needs high school students and provided a safe haven for those kids who felt out of place in this world of non-acceptance.”

Owner Mark Tracy was inspired to create Artful Gardens when he realized that the local area was lacking services for children with autism and other special needs. The organization was zoned for agriculture but not agritourism, causing it to be shut down.

“They can’t have the playground open to the public even though the county gave them all of their permits for it two weeks ago,” Dovey said.

It consisted of 32 acres, with six of those acres designated for botanical gardens including picnic areas and a fire pit where children often enjoyed s’mores. Children who spent time there had the opportunity to make art and create fixtures that were then placed in the garden and playground and could pet animals, pot plants, walk the nature trails as well as participate in socially interactive games.

“The staff gave these children opportunities to work and learn,” Dover said.

Artful Gardens has worked with several other local organizations in the area, such as the Cub Scouts, My Autism Connection, the Lee County School District, Blue Crayonz, Special Equestrians and Lily’s Playhouse.

Despite Artful Garden’s popularity both with volunteers and participants, the future of the organization doesn’t seem so bright.

“The future is grim and uncertain,” Dovey said. “The founder has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in building and protecting this place and cannot afford to spend more.”

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