CFN Visits Desert Survivors in Tucson Arizona

February 21, 2024

CFN’s Outreach & Communications Consultant, Kate Mudge, had the great pleasure of touring Desert Survivors, a retail native plant nursery that offers integrated employment for adults with intellectual developmental disabilities. Located in Tucson Arizona, Desert Survivors is dedicated to providing quality employment to adults with developmental disabilities, advocacy for families and individuals, sells desert-friendly products at their native plant nursery, and provides services to their community.


“We value being able to have relationships. Just having that dignity and identity to be able to say, ‘I work at Desert Survivors, and this is what I do’…that is so important. We involve everyone in all that we do.”

-Karen Wilson, Executive Director, Desert Survivors

Karen Wilson and Hannah Woelke. Karen is retiring in Spring 2024 after many years with Desert Survivors, and Hannah will be stepping in as the new ED.

During the visit, we learned that Desert Survivors was founded in 1981 by Dr. Joseph Patterson, a Tucson psychologist who worked with adults with disabilities living in institutions during the 1970’s. He recognized their need for meaningful activities and occupations to provide dignity and purpose in their lives. In the late 1970s, Tucson residents became interested in native plants that were both attractive and low water use.

The plant nursery grew out of humble beginnings. Originally, they were only open three days a year for annual plant sales and offered a small selection of desert-adapted plants. When Peter Geirlach (aka ‘Petey Mesquitey’) joined the staff in the early 1990’s, a strong new direction began for the nursery. Peter brought his expertise in local plants, along with a passion to offer unusual and lesser-known native plants to the community. Peter’s vision brought Desert Survivor’s plant nursery to a whole new level, and we offered unusual local plants along with desert-adapted plants from around the globe. In 2004, the plant nursery went completely local and regionally native and made the decision to no longer sell plants from other continents or regions.

Desert Survivors is proud to offer the largest selection of native plants in the state, most of which are grown on their 4.3-acre site. We were impressed with their operation of employing upwards of 43 adults with I/DD in fully integrated work environments pursuing the goal of assisting each person to reach their full potential in employment readiness and move on to competitive employment within their community. Seeing growers and mentors caring for the plants, providing landscaping services, and taking immense pride in their work was a joy. If you’re ever in the Tucson area, don’t miss out on an opportunity to stop in and visit!

To read the Spring Newsletter from Desert Survivors, click here!

Clients and mentors from Desert Survivors