From Guatemala to COD and Beyond: COD Horticulture Alumna Overcomes Language Barriers, Finds Success in Helping Adults with Disabilities

By: Angela Mennecke

Ana Solares at work at Empowering Gardens

When Ana Solares emigrated from Guatemala to the U.S. in 2003 at age 25, the non-native English speaker enrolled in COD's Adult English Language Acquisition program to further her language skills. But it was a chance encounter with a group of Horticulture students that led Solares to find her career path, allowing her to build a foundation that eventually would launch a successful business venture marrying her two passions—gardening and helping those with disabilities.

“Not being able to communicate felt like a disability to me,” she said. “For many of us, the only thing we need to succeed and reach our full potential is for someone to give us a fighting chance.”

Despite the language barrier and adapting to American culture, Solares’ experience in COD’s Horticulture program changed the course of her life, she said.

“I always enjoyed watching plants develop and bear fruits at my parents’ small farm in Guatemala, but I never thought I could pursue my passion professionally,” she said. “Thanks to COD, I was able to do just that. Not only were my Horticulture professors passionate and well-versed about the subject, but they helped me translate lessons. I would tape record each class and then work though the content with my instructors’ help. The Horticulture program faculty and my ELA instructors were incredibly supportive, which allowed me to thrive and become confident in my future professional endeavors.”

After graduating from COD in 2005 with an Associate of Science degree in Horticulture, Solares spent the next decade managing a greenhouse and landscaping program for a non-profit corporation. She collaborated with schools, community centers and park districts to create jobs for people with disabilities.

In 2016, she and a friend launched Empowering Gardens in Forest Park, a nonprofit that aims to provide people with disabilities meaningful, long-term, career-oriented employment.

“Everyone should have the opportunity for a fulfilling and meaningful work experience,” she said. “At Empowering Gardens, we strive to provide adults with varying skills and abilities the assistance they need to have an equal opportunity and the support to be more involved in their community and society.”

As Director of Operations, Solares said her job is more rewarding than she ever imagined.

“Many of our employees never thought they would have the opportunity to work,” she said. “We believe in growth without limits. We will never stop encouraging individuals to work to their maximum ability, cultivate their passion and empower them to live a more independent and fulfilling life.”

While the pandemic negatively impacted some local businesses, Empowering Gardens has been breaking sales records, as homebound residents turn to gardening as a hobby.

“It’s incredibly rewarding when customers show me pictures of their garden and they express happiness for their success,” she said. “I’m glad my love and expertise in gardening can provide inspiration to others.”

Solares credits COD's ELA and Horticulture programs for her personal and professional success.

“Every day, I utilize the knowledge I obtained at COD,” she said. “COD gave me the tools to assimilate to America and prepared me to make a life for myself. Not everyone who immigrates to America has the fortune of getting the right start, but I’m lucky to say that I did.”