Once again, it’s planting season in the Gardens of Compassion beds behind St. James United Methodist Church in Niagara Falls.

But, volunteers are planting more than just vegetables there. They’re planting the seeds for better understanding, to break down the stigma around mental illness.

MORE | Click here to learn more about how you can get involved.

Clients served by Community Missions’ mental health programs work side by side with other community members to tend the gardens every Monday morning through October.

“It really shows people that people with mental illness aren’t some kind of a monster, they are just like you and me,” said Community Missions Agency Minister Rev. Mark Breese. “And people understand that really, with the proper treatment and with engagements, and with not having people pushed aside and marginalized, that actually makes us stronger as a community.”

After all, mental illness really can and does affect just about anyone’s life. One in five American adults has a diagnosable mental health condition in any given year. Furthermore, 50 percent of Americans will meet the criteria for a diagnosable mental health condition sometime in their life.

And, there is a link between mental health and nutrition, so the Gardens of Compassion project is a natural fit for Community Missions. “Depression rates can go down just by eating a good solid diet, and of course, if you’re coming out here to play in the dirt and the lettuce and tomatoes, then all the more reason to be eating that stuff,” said Christian Hoffman, the director of communications for Community Missions.

The food grown in the Community Missions beds go to Community Missions soup kitchen, the kids in the Little Wonders program at St. James and to the gardeners themselves.

“It’s unbelievable the benefit of having fresh vegetables right in the community,” said St. James Pastor Matthew Kofahl.

The Gardens of Compassion initiative is a partnership between St. James United Methodist Church, Community Missions, and Cornell Cooperative Extension, which also provides presentations on nutrition and gardening education during the Monday morning gardening gatherings. Goodman’s Farm Market also donates supplies.

This year, Grassroots Gardens WNY is also making a huge donation, giving the materials to create four more raised garden beds for the Gardens of Compassion program.

“To be able to grow your own food for cheap is a really important and beneficial thing for a lot of community members, and especially here, it’s also just an important gathering space and a really great way for everybody in the community to get together and do meaningful work together,” said Heather Helman, the Community Gardens Manager for Grassroots Gardens WNY.

If you’d like to get involved in the Gardens of Compassion project, whether during the Monday morning primary gardening times or watering and weeding the gardens through the week, you can learn more here.

News 4’s Katie Alexander had the chance to plant a few veggies in the Gardens of Compassion beds Tuesday morning while learning more about the program and its expansion. Watch the videos below to see our full Wake Up coverage.