GLOVERSVILLE – Raven Winchester-Kenna said she caught her first drug charge when she was 19 after a customer turned out to be a confidential police informant. That 2010 arrest began a troubling pattern of selling drugs, getting caught and serving time.
But, somehow, in 2016 Winchester-Kenna, now 32, found the strength to break the cycle of recidivism. The catalyst? Plants.
Last week, Winchester-Kenna, along with city elected officials, county economic development leaders, friends, family members and others celebrated the opening of Freya’s Forest, a licensed nursery and plant shop, at downtown’s “Four Corners.”
The opening of Winchester-Kenna’s store in the heart of Gloversville shows her resilience in an uplifting story of recovery that Winchester-Kenna said may not have happened if she were never in prison.
“Plants were a big change for me in my life,” she said.
Winchester-Kenna said she developed her love of plants through the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s Horticulture program. The vocational course, offered at several facilities across New York, aims to teach students how to be employable as a horticulturist or groundskeeper, according to the state’s website. Training covers plant propagation, transplanting, pruning, cultivation, fertilization, greenhouse production and insect control.
All of it resonated with Winchester-Kenna.
“Just being around things that need your care and attention and nurturing,” Winchester-Kenna said. “Plants are like humans. With the proper care and the proper nourishing, they can flourish. So I found a connection with flourishing with my plants.”
It seems especially fitting that among other services and products, her store specializes in plant arrangements that live inside hand-blown apothecary jars.
“I just find it amazing that you can keep something living in an enclosed vessel,” Winchester-Kenna said.
Winchester-Kenna presented extra challenges even before she was born, said her mother, Deborah Winchester. Winchester said the pregnancy involved untying her fallopian tubes after dealing with endometriosis.
Given Winchester-Kenna’s arrest history, the struggle clearly continued into young adulthood.
Winchester said she feared her daughter’s time behind bars would be detrimental.
“I worried all the time when she was incarcerated,” Winchester said. “I was worried her personality would change.”
Winchester said her youngest child of four has always been unique.
“She hears a different song in her heart than other people, and I was afraid that would change when she was incarcerated,” Winchester said. “It was scary when she went in and back and went in and went back.”
But by Winchester-Kenna’s third stint behind bars – when she learned about growing plants – she said she was ready to change.
“You get a second chance all the time. Every day you get a chance to do something different,” said Winchester-Kenna.
Following her release, Winchester-Kenna was categorized as a Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions Status 1, which requires the highest level of supervision, including weekly check-ins, home visits and curfew checks, among other measures, according to a New York State Division of Parole employee who worked with Winchester-Kenna after her release but did not want to be identified.
But after Winchester-Kenna’s final release, she made the commitment to do something different, the parole employee said.
“She had a few bumps in the beginning, but she definitely said ‘this is it, I want to make some changes, I want to do better,’” the employee said.
When Winchester-Kenna came home from the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in 2016, she began filling her home with plants.
“Our living space just kept getting tighter and tighter with more and more plants, and she was just feeling, I don’t want to say lost, but looking for something else to do than just be a full-time mom and homemaker,” said Luke Kenna, Winchester-Kenna’s husband. “So I suggested we do something with plants to relieve some space in the house and maybe make some money off her passion.”
Freya’s Forest opened last summer in a different Gloversville location before moving to the South Main Street storefront last fall. The store’s name comes from Freya, the Norse goddess of blessings, love and fertility.
The parole employee said having a specific project like the plant store can help.
“I don’t think anything is a guarantee, but I think she’s focused, she wants to do better, and I think this gives her a purpose,” the employee said. “Those are really good things for her, and when she has that, I think she can flourish.”
Now the shop – which specializes in self-sustaining ecosystems, traditional houseplants and exotics and also carries a variety of products, such as beneficial insects for integrated pest management, soil amendments, and other horticultural and organic gardening needs – is one seed in the regrowth of downtown Gloversville, said Mayor Vincent DeSantis.
“I’m particularly drawn to this business because when you walk in the door it just feels really beautiful because of all the plants,” DeSantis said during last week’s ribbon cutting. “And one of the things about public spaces is there has to be a lot of greenery.”
Gloversville is currently in the process of carrying out a $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative, and part of the focus is developing outdoor spaces, including the Littauer Piazza, which has been conceived as a public square steps from Winchester-Kenna’s shop.
While Winchester-Kenna is happy to be contributing to the city’s renaissance, she’s also just glad that the store gives her personal meaning. She’s particularly adamant about setting a good example for her five children, who range in age from in-utero at the time of writing to 12.
“That’s the biggest thing that pushes me forward,” she said. “It can happen. It doesn’t matter the recidivism or how many times you go in and out. It is up to you to put in the work to become what you want to be,” Winchester-Kenna said inside her store, where plants bathed in sunlight. “This is what I want to be.”
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.
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