From Sobriety to Soil: How UMaine Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Dennis Willette Found Renewal

Dennis Willette, UMaine Extension volunteer
Dennis Willette

In the quiet corners of a York County garden, a transformation was taking place. For Dennis Willette, a Master Gardener Volunteer with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, the act of tending to plants became more than just a hobby – it became a lifeline. After battling addiction for years, he made the courageous decision to seek help and embark on a path to sobriety. Little did he know that his involvement in the Master Gardener Volunteer program would become a catalyst for his newfound life.

“I was a pretty broken guy. I had maybe two weeks of sobriety and I had been diagnosed with bipolar (disorder) when I moved to the shelter here in York County,” says Willette. “The opportunity that this simple little class gave me has lasted until today. It gave me more than I imagined.”

When Willette moved to the York County shelter in 2003, he was given the responsibility of managing all the horticulture activities. Along with “two other gentlemen,” Willette initiated a program called “The Farm,” which aimed to establish an organic homestead. Despite having limited knowledge about horticulture, Willette’s journey took a positive turn when he met Richard Frost, a farm manager with expertise in recovery, mental health, and organic farming. Frost took Willette under his wing and taught him the intricacies of farming. He also encouraged Willette to enroll in the University of Maine Cooperative Extenion’s master gardener program, assuring him that it would be a valuable learning experience.

“To be honest, they were putting me in charge of the horticulture and the only thing I knew about horticulture was that if I get a pickle bucket and fill it with dirt and put a tomato and a basil plant, and feed it miracle grow, I get tomatoes. That’s it. That is all I knew,” he says.

After successfully completing the master gardener program and fulfilling all his required volunteer hours, Willette’s dedication to farming paid off. Although he faced limitations in terms of transportation within the first year, which restricted his activities to plant sales, the following two years witnessed significant growth in the garden.

“When I was on the farm, I would get up at 4 o’clock in the morning and then I would go out in the garden after a cup of coffee. I would spend all day there in the gardens and the orchard, except for coming in for lunch and I would go back out again until sunset,” he said. “It was the most rewarding time of any job I ever had. You get there early in the morning and put your hand in the dirt and it is still warm. People say they hate weeding a garden. I love weeding a garden. The whole aspect of starting seedlings, planting them, seeing the plants come to maturity, then harvesting them and canning them. I could see the fruits of my labor and enjoy them.”

The involvement with Extension and the Master Gardener Volunteer program also provided him with opportunities to give back to the community. Willette became involved in various outreach initiatives, like the “Plant a Row for the Hungry” initiative, now known as Maine Harvest for Hunger. On weekends and Thursdays, he would also lend a hand in gleaning fields in Wells and North Berwick. Willette said it provided him with a supportive community of like-minded individuals. Through these acts of service, Willette discovered a sense of purpose and fulfillment that he had never experienced before.

“What I found amazing is the people that I met were committed to going out and doing good for free and doing the best they can to help society. Harvest for Hunger, Garden Angels, Kids Can Grow program – all of that. To me this is so spiritually uplifting. All the passion and doing the best they can to help somebody else,” he said.

Willette said the Master Gardener Volunteer program became a turning point in his life. It not only helped him maintain his sobriety but also gave him a new sense of identity and purpose. Through his involvement in the program, he found a way to channel his energy and passion into something positive, creating a ripple effect of transformation in his own life and the lives of those around him.

“Every time I meet someone new and they ask me about my interests, it is the first thing I talk about. The Master Gardener Volunteer Program. The very first thing, because it means a lot,” he said. “It meant a lot because I was new to York County. I was new to gardening. I was just new to the world so to speak after being in a hospital, being homeless, being everything.”

He added, “The Master Gardener Volunteer program was an opportunity for me to do things altruistically, being out there helping without a thought about myself, just someone else and I was amongst people who felt the same way and that was the best part.”

Today, Willette continues to thrive as a Master Gardener Volunteer, sharing his love for gardening and the lessons he has learned along his journey of recovery. He hopes his story serves as a powerful reminder of the healing power of nature and the transformative impact of community support. Through the simple act of tending to plants, Willette found a new lease on life and a renewed sense of hope.

“I’ve been at a real low point in my life. Homeless, hungry, cold – freezing cold-, sitting on a bench. I know what it is like when you don’t have anything,” he said. “This program was instrumental in making major changes in my life and I am not sure where I would be today, but I know I am a better person for it.”

Willette’s journey as a Master Gardener Volunteer has not only transformed his life but has also touched the lives of those around him.

“Dennis’s story is a testament to the transformative power of gardening and volunteering, and the profound impact it can have on one’s life,” said Mary Wicklund, Extension horticultural professional. “His dedication to his own personal growth and recovery is evident in the way he tends to the garden with such care and passion. He has become an integral part of our community, not only sharing his knowledge and expertise but also serving as a beacon of hope for others who may be on their own journey of healing.”

As he continues to tend to garden beds, Willette reflects on how far he has come and his close to 1,000 hours of volunteer work throughout the years. He says the seeds he plants are not just for the growth of plants but for the growth of his own spirit. With each blossom that blooms, he is reminded of the resilience of the human spirit and the power of second chances.

“There is no down part of this. It is all positive. You get involved in the program, learn, and make friends. And those friendships last,” he said. “Don’t wait. Don’t hesitate to volunteer. It is probably the best experience you will ever have. What you will meet is people who are dedicated and do good work, with no thought of financial gain. Just giving themselves to a project that is worthwhile. It is so rewarding.”