If you happen to walk along the alley behind The ARK’s West Rogers Park location, you might be surprised to encounter a patch of lush green, popping out of the otherwise drab surrounding. You’d notice two large, well-tended raised flower beds and a row of gardening containers growing vegetables, herbs and flowers: the IDP summer garden in full bloom. In 2006 the clients and staff of The ARK Intensive Day Program set out to reclaim this overgrown patch of weeds to create a little oasis where clients can tend their own plants, learn about gardening and ecology and experience getting their hands in the dirt. Each morning when we step into the garden new things bloom and ripen, germinate and buzz.

The garden is a beautiful metaphor for the Intensive Day Program itself. Participants of this program are Jewish men and women across the age span living with mental health challenges. Some have serious mental health diagnoses; others have just fallen outside the mainstream and have never managed to fully recover what they lost. Almost all of them live independently in the community, often in the vicinity of The ARK, and support themselves on meager Social Security checks. All tell us of lives often lived in isolation, small, cramped quarters, and daily hardship.

The Intensive Day Program was founded 20 years ago to provide such clients a place to heal and grow. We start each day with a drop-in hour, where participants can gather for a light breakfast and conversation, followed by a full day of therapeutic, creative arts and recreational activities. The groups and classes are facilitated by IDP staff, lay and professional volunteers and even by fellow IDP clients who have a specialty to teach, such as Poetry Workshop, yoga and jewelry making. In collaboration with The ARK’s Spiritual Enrichment program, participants enjoy Shabbat and holiday celebration, daily Judaic class and mincha service.

The garden is now fallow. This year clients were not able to physically come to our space, and it is once again overgrown and desolate. But the program is alive and well. We quickly adapted to the new pandemic reality and launched a “Virtual IDP.”  Currently, participants can choose from Poetry to Current Events classes, sing along in Music Therapy or move to the rhythm of a Zoom-based Dance Therapy – all in all 15 weekly activities. As many of our participants are not so tech savvy, they can join by just dialing in by phone. The number of people who have been rejoining IDP have grown to around 90 visits a week, and participants often tell us how grateful they are to have IDP– their community–back. In the face of fear, social isolation, and emptiness, IDP continues to offer connection, healing, and growth.