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Nurturing mothers, children--and fish

The 10 mothers and 16 children who live in Dorchester's Re-Vision House recently welcomed another 100 residents, but overcrowding isn't a problem. The new occupants all reside in the three-decker's recently constructed greenhouse-and they happen to be fish.

Started in 1989, Re-Vision House is a transitional home that seeks to provide young mothers and their children with stability and structure, as well as education and training that will enable them to become self-sufficient. The home's experimental greenhouse gained an aquaculture component with support from MIT Sea Grant and expertise from fisheries engineer Clifford Goudey.

The aquaculture project was inspired by earlier MIT Sea Grant-sponsored research, in which fish farming was integrated into a hydroponic vegetable production system, with commercial, social and educational goals. That project was conducted by Ronald Zweig at the Massachusetts Department of Corrections' Southeast Correctional Center in Bridgewater.

"We're raising fish in a closed system that mimics nature," Re-Vision House's greenhouse manager Tom Libby explained. Each of three 55-gallon tanks of tilapia [a freshwater food fish] is hooked up to a tank filled with water and lava rocks, where bacteria break down ammonia in the fish wastes into nitrite and nitrate-food for plants. Water from that tank then travels into a third tank, which acts much like a bubbling brook. There, algae growth promotes the removal of carbon dioxide, and oxygen is dissolved into the water. The oxygen-rich water then flows back into the fish tank. Meanwhile, grow tubes installed in the oxygenation tank provide hydropinically grown plants with a rich diet of nutrients needed for their growth-all without the use of synthetic fertilizers. The plants also remove a good portion of the nitrate from the water in which the fish live, thereby providing a healthy environment.

Like the vegetables and herbs grown in the greenhouse and adjacent garden, the fish will feed both residents of the house and consumers at large. Plans call for several more tanks and possibly other systems for raising fish such as trout, catfish and ornamentals.

"The mothers are very excited and the kids love the fish and the greenhouse," says Yvonne Booker Miller, the founder and director of Re-Vision House. Raising both crops and children comes naturally to Ms. Miller, who grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania with nine sisters and five brothers and went on to raise two biological and seven foster children. Ms. Miller conceived of the gardens and greenhouse as a way to introduce urban children to a natural world otherwise unavailable.

"And it's a unique environment for education," she said, noting that "the greenhouse also promotes cleaner air and reduces heating bills." An Urban Initiative grant provided initial funds for the greenhouse, while the City of Boston's Public Facilities Department provided the adjacent plot of land and funding for the community garden and playground.

The focal point of future plans will be a commercial-size greenhouse with extensive hydroponics and aquaculture. Christine James, a research associate at MIT's Sea Grant, will work with Re-Vision House staff in developing a business plan for their commercial aquaculture. The facility will also house a center for child care and educational activities. Ms. Miller also hopes to develop classroom space for secondary education and job training in collaboration with the Dorchester Log School, which has a high school equivalency program. Plans are underway to teach a complete secondary-level aquaculture curriculum.

Re-Vision House is seeking volunteers interested in helping out in both short- and long-term projects, including aquaculture and architectural endeavors, painting, construction and other areas. For more information, call Andrea Cohen, x3-3461, e-mail .

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 8, 1996.

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