DeSaavre Paige never thought he’d be using techniques he learned from his grandparents’ farm in his day job at Strickland Youth Center (SYC), but that’s exactly what the detention officer coordinator is doing.
Hidden behind the otherwise unassuming juvenile detention center, a number of raised beds are planted with 7-foot-tall corn stalks, okra, peppers, lavender and more, all tended by Paige with help from those former Strickland residents now out on probation.
“My folks are from Jackson, Alabama, and they basically just grew their own corn, pigs and other stuff,” he said. “Back in the day there wasn’t Walmart. You just grew your own.”
Commissioned by juvenile court Judge Edmond Naman and with plans drawn up by SYC Transitional Programming Coordinator Riley Brenes, Paige, Officer Christopher Jackson and the youth of the crisis center and probation department built the beds and planted the crops.
The garden remains a weekly spot for teens in the program and it gives them a weekend activity,” Brenes said.
It caught on slowly for many in the program, Paige said.
“Everyone was hesitant to it at first,” he said. “Once they got out there, they became kids again.”
Now everyone in the facility wants to go out and garden, he said.
Gardening has a positive impact on the teens’ mental health, Naman said.
“It’s cathartic for them,” he said. “It teaches them very valuable skills about the need to keep up with something. You see the hard work and you see the results.”
The program at SYC is in its third year, Brenes said. About 80 teens have participated in tending the garden since its inception. Currently members of the crisis center and probation program come out on Saturdays to pull weeds and generally tend to the garden. However, the success of what is dubbed the “probation garden” has sprouted plans for two more gardens — one on site for teens in detention and another in Whistler for residents of Prichard.
Among the organizations involved in the Whistler garden is the Prichard Water Works and Sewer Board (PWWSB) which has agreed to donate funds to the project, Director Nia Bradley confirmed. She said the two sides were “in talks” about the amount. PWWSB will be providing the water and Bradley will help teach the gardeners about conservation.
The program has expanded with the help of Mobile Master Gardeners and Mobile Urban Growers, Brenes said. The garden in Prichard is to help neighborhood children learn more about gardening, he said.
Work, like that of the garden project, can help kids and teens in “food deserts” learn more about healthy eating options, Pat Hall, with Mobile Urban Growers, said.
“It teaches vocational training, healthy eating habits and community development,” she said.
Naman agreed, adding that teaching about gardening could help kids better their situations.
“So many of our children live in poverty,” he said. “They’re not exposed to healthy foods. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
SYC officials plan to have a so-called “detention garden” ready for planting in the fall. The timing will be in line for the start of the next growing season, Master Gardener Carol Dorsey said.
“We wanted to consider the growing seasons,” she said. “Fall is still a growing season.”
In previous years, the garden’s yield has been donated to area food banks, but with the creation of the Prichard garden, Brenes said the group is looking to possibly sell the yield at local farmers markets. This would begin with the Prichard Farmers Market, but could expand.
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