Despite life’s struggles, a community gardener sees opportunity for all.
Gerldine Wilson ’83 has created a lot of good in her 64 years, from decades as a preschool teacher to her current work as an anti-violence community activist, gardener, writer, poet, painter—and above all, an inspiration to those who battle physical and mental pain.
Born in Florida and raised in Buffalo, Wilson followed her sister to UB and studied English, eventually switching to African-American literature where she studied under professors Carlene Hatcher Polite and James Pappas. She went on to teach preschool but kept their lessons close.
It was a time when black students couldn’t access much social or educational support, Wilson says, yet Polite and Pappas “allowed me to find a place called home” on the large, mostly white campus. Polite, a noted writer, noticed Wilson also loved to write and “encouraged me to stay in school when I felt like quitting.” Pappas, an artist and filmmaker who founded the Black Studies program at UB (now the Department of African American Studies), introduced her to more black history and culture that influences her to this day.
In 2012, Wilson, a passionate gardener, founded the Victoria Avenue Community Garden on Buffalo’s East Side as peaceful refuge for a community coping with chronic violence. She also serves as accessibility task force coordinator for Grassroots Gardens, a nonprofit organization that supports local gardeners, and where she co-facilitates a workshop on trauma and healing through Grassroots’ Grief in the Garden program.
Wilson also uses her many creative outlets to heal herself. Her family has been marked by violence; her father died when she was two and then her brother was killed in 2012, as she was launching the community garden. “Our neighborhood would pray together,” she says, “but there wasn’t a lot of support or information” on combating violence.
Several years ago, she went progressively blind in both eyes, something her doctors noticed as she recovered from leg injuries resulting from a bad fall.
Today Wilson is legally blind with limited vision and mobility in her legs, although she refuses to let life’s challenges slow her down. Instead, she taps into all her creative outlets, including gardening, to help process her past traumas, whether physical or mental.
“Writing and gardening have kept me alive,” she says.
“I use writing, art and gardening as tools, and want to show people that no matter who they are, they can reach for what works.” -Gerldine Wilson
When Grassroots and Hospice Buffalo began offering trauma-informed workshops on the healing benefits of gardening a few years ago, Wilson eagerly joined their efforts. “We show people of all abilities that gardens are a place of healing.”
To help low-vision gardeners like Wilson, the UB IDEA Center in the School of Architecture and Urban Planning developed a unique tactile map to navigate the rows of raised beds filled with flowers and vegetables.
She works tirelessly to expand a support group she formed for women on the blind spectrum, and she plans to become a certified art therapist and create a workshop on homicide addressing its “many layers of trauma.”
She is even writing a children’s book, aptly titled “Sister Gerldine is blind, but she can see.”
Published March 24, 2022