Instructors of the Bradley County Juvenile Court Junior Master Gardener program recently gave members of the Bradley Sunrise Rotary Club an update on how the program has been helping local youth.
The program is an alternative sentencing option for youth between the ages of 13 and 17, who find themselves in trouble with the juvenile court system.
Having been court-ordered to take up gardening to fulfill a community service sentence, the youth take part in a 23-week program designed to help them learn gardening skills and other things along the way.
Volunteer instructor Dave Hopper explained that the students meet on Tuesday evenings to take part in a 45-minute class on gardening before heading outside to practice what they learn for an additional 45 minutes.
Students learn about everything from soil to watering in a classroom setting. Cultivating land on the property of the Bradley County Juvenile Detention Center on Johnson Boulevard, each of the 12 students who take part in the program is given a garden bed to manage for the duration of the program.
“We have a great program each week,” Hopper said.
Since the students in the program have already gotten in trouble with the law, he explained the program is very structured, and youth are taught to abide by certain rules, including ones regarding things like how students should dress.
Youth Service Officer Steven Rogers said many of the youth come from bad home situations and are not use to people giving them rules and actually enforcing them. That can lead to some interruptions and disagreements, but he said the instructors persist in teaching students what they are there to learn.
However, he said he tries to help keep order by telling students they must show their instructors respect, and they can then expect the instructors to show them respect in return.
“The children are court-ordered to be there,” Master Gardener and instructor Ricky Tallent said. “If we can’t handle the rough kids, then who can?”
Rogers explained that, while the students are there to learn skills and complete community service requirements, the program ends up including a mentoring aspect.
Only 12 youth take part in the program at a time, and there will generally be between eight and 10 instructors in order to allow the youth to have some one-on-one time with an instructor.
Hopper said the instructors — many of whom are volunteers — try to cultivate positive relationships with the youth at the same time as they are trying to teach them gardening skills. Some youth show resentment fot having to be there and refuse help while working on gardening projects, but he said instructors still try to be positive influences on their students — even if the students don’t know the instructors are trying to help them change for the better.
“They don’t know you’re trying to do something,” Hopper said. “But it’s rewarding.”
Tallent told the Rotarians the story of one girl who had to go to the Junior Master Gardener class straight from after-school detention one day. While she was a young person who had gotten into some trouble, he said seeing that her plants had grown brought a smile to her face that afternoon.
Tallent said the program teaches young people that they are capable of doing work that can bring positive results.
While many of the students do learn to enjoy gardening and seeing the results of their work, Hopper said many of them choose to maintain negative attitudes around the other youth. However, if the instructors look closely, they can catch fleeting smiles of satisfaction.
“They don’t want their peer groups ... to know they’re having a good time,” Hopper said. “It shows over time.”
While some may be slow to smile or act like they are enjoying the gardening program, he said one of the first clues that participants are beginning to enjoy it when they start asking lots of questions.
As they take part in classes and work in their garden beds, the youth have the opportunity to ask questions of their instructors.
To foster a spirit of teamwork, the instructors also encourage the youth to offer to help each other when the work is done in their own gardens.
Rogers said he often sees “a major difference” in how a student interacts with others. He said many arrive with low self-esteem and little respect for others and end the program being able to look people in the eye and shake their hands.
Tallent said he met one girl who was given the opportunity to take care of two beds, and she cultivated one bed with vegetables and one with strawberries.
She had been through some tough situations in her life and was living in foster care. She didn’t say much to anyone as she worked, but her gardening became a source of pride for her as she was able to give away the fresh strawberries she grew.
“The smile on her face said it all,” Tallent said.
After 23 weeks, students are able to become certified Junior Master Gardeners, and their accomplishments are honored with a graduation ceremony.
They are encouraged to continue their gardening afterward and are given graduation gift bags that always include trowels and work gloves.
The most recent graduation took place in May, and the program generally follows a schedule that is similar those followed by local school systems. The program is taking a break for the summer, but the next Junior Master Gardener class will run Aug. 26 to Nov. 18.
The program is run with the help from volunteers, funding by the juvenile court and donations from local companies and individuals.
Local plant nurseries donate plants and other gardening supplies, and the volunteers who work with the youth provide snacks for them to eat each week. The George R. Johnson Family Foundation often donates $10 restaurant gift cards to include with the graduation gift bags.
Future plans for the program include recruiting more volunteers and soliciting donations to provide funding for the programs to expand.
The program used to allow more than 12 students at a time, but limited space meant enrollment had to be capped at a certain number. The instructors said the program recently applied for a grant that would provide the funding necessary to build a greenhouse
The hope is that having a greenhouse will allow more work to be done in the winter months and could potentially allow more students to take part.
“It’s a great thing,” Rogers said.