A transformative program is taking root in an inner-city garden, surrounded by bustling traffic, poverty, and a lack of healthy food options. Last fall, Men of Nehemiah, an addiction recovery program, planted a garden in the heart of Southern Dallas that is changing the lives of men recovering from addiction.
Led by Park Cities resident Terry McCullough, the program has blossomed into a thriving success story. McCullough, a passionate advocate for the therapeutic power of gardening, has seen it transform men. She learned about Men of Nehemiah from Melinda Russ, a close friend who is Executive VP of Community Outreach at Men of Nehemiah. Russ spent decades helping Herb Kelleher build Southwest Airlines before joining the faith-based non-profit.
“Melinda and I raised our kids together,” explains McCullough. “My kids left the nest and I’d just finished my career as a tennis pro at Dallas Country Club when Melinda called to ask, ‘any chance you’d help us out in the garden?’ Working in the garden is the ultimate metaphor for life. Life started in the Garden, right? It’s a place of rebirth and rejuvenation!”
Men of Nehemiah offers men a nine-month residential recovery program that seeks to restore the lives of men that have been derailed by drug and alcohol addiction. The objective is to help each man become the person God intended him to be and reunite him with his loved ones and community.
“The garden is just one of many opportunities for people to volunteer at Men of Nehemiah,” said Russ. “I invite people to come experience our All City Worship every Tuesday at 6 pm to see for themselves how we are changing lives at Men of Nehemiah. Guests see what this organization is doing to make an impact in our community, and they are moved to bring their treasures, talents, and time to help.”
Despite the oppressive heat last summer, the Men of Nehemiah garden’s first year exceeded all expectations, yielding an abundance of okra, eggplant, squash, cucumbers, watermelon, cantaloupe, and tomatoes. This fall, the team has been preparing beds and planting cool-weather crops like lettuce, cauliflower, and broccoli.
“The garden is a fundamental classroom for someone going through difficulty,” said McCullough. “It requires patience and hard work. It’s dirty work and it isn't initially beautiful. But with patience and perseverance, the garden will deliver something nourishing.”
This garden offers more than fresh produce. It provides an opportunity for the Men of Nehemiah to slow down, work with their hands, and experience the healing beauty of nature.
Christopher H., a Men of Nehemiah participant on the path to recovery, explained how he views the garden. “When I’m in the garden, the weeds are like my addiction,” he said. “The weeds surrounded me. They were trying to take over my life, choking me out, and causing me not to grow. Once I got the weeds – the drugs -- out of my life, I still have to re-train my mind and body to be able to function in Life.”
Biblical parallels are evident. McCullough recalled Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed, a story in which a tiny seed grows into a tree large enough for birds to perch in its branches. “It doesn’t happen overnight, she said. “But it does happen. And that makes me feel hopeful.”
In 1994, Pastor Louis Harrell, a former US Army Colonel, founded Men of Nehemiah in New Orleans to deliver his wayward son, Louis Harrell, Jr., from the grip of addiction. After being restored, Louis Jr. relocated to North Texas, where he launched Men of Nehemiah in South Dallas with the help of Roger McCasland, President and CEO of Operation Relief Center.
“When men come to Men of Nehemiah, they have lost all structure in their lives,” said Harrell. “We instill discipline to help the men be successful in a controlled environment so they learn how to create boundaries. The garden is another tool we use to teach the men about a healthy lifestyle which includes their nutrition, service and the confidence that they have something meaningful to contribute.”
Today, Men of Nehemiah has helped more than 1,500 men find paths to recovery. Research compiled in 2022 affirmed that 61% of men who graduated from Men of Nehemiah prior to 2020 stayed sober for at least two years. Of the men who graduated from the program in 2022, 100% were employed when they left the program and each man had a savings account. Throughout 2022, the men completed 11,148 hours of community service. More information is available at http://menofnehemiah.org.