Amy Grom is used to seeing growth in the garden.
But in her work with juvenile offenders, some of the greatest growth she sees is in the gardeners.
Grom coordinates the gardening program at the William P. Kannel Juvenile Justice Center on Akron’s near northeast side. Under her guidance, young inmates learn to grow food and flowers and sometimes get their first taste of freshly grown fruits and vegetables.
Grom calls it dirt therapy. She sees kids relax when they work in the garden, she said. She sees them get excited about a bean sprouting or a tomato ripening. She sees even the toughest offenders take responsibility for the plants’ care.
The program was conceived by Juvenile Judge Linda Tucci Teodosio, who said she gardened with her own grandmother and thought the undertaking would benefit the court’s young charges. The program receives funding from the center’s Women’s Board, a group that supports activities at the juvenile center.
“It teaches them nurturing,” Teodosio said of the gardening program. “It gives them a positive activity,” one that lets them set aside their problems for a little while.
The voluntary program started about a year and a half ago and is open to all of the roughly 40 to 50 youths in detention, who work in small groups. In winter, participants work in a heated greenhouse, producing cool-weather crops such as lettuce and spinach or starting seeds that will later be transplanted outdoors. Right now they’re nurturing spider plants, zinnias, narcissus and other potted plants that will be sold at the Women’s Board’s spring fundraiser later this month.
Wood craft sticks jut from small planters the participants created for the sale. They proudly bear the names of the youths who planted them.
Once the weather warms, the activity will move outdoors to a cluster of planting beds in a courtyard.
The young gardeners grow a variety of fruits and vegetables in the garden — asparagus and radishes, carrots and beans, blackberries and blueberries. Teodosio makes sure they put in lots of tomatoes and peppers. “I am Italian, after all,” she said.
Grom uses organic methods and tells the participants they can eat anything they want while they’re out in the garden. Consequently, the berries never made it inside last summer.
What survives goes to the cafeteria to supplement meals.
For some of the inmates, it’s their first experience eating fresh vegetables, Grom said. Some embrace it. Others balk.
“I’ve heard, ‘Why are you feeding us grass?’ ” she said with a smile.
A salad bar stocked with lettuce grown by the gardeners has been popular. So was the zucchini bread made from the garden’s bounty.
“Beets, not so much,” Grom said.
A former Akron school board member, Grom works in math and science lessons, such as requiring the youth to figure out the square footage of a garden bed or explaining why downy mildew killed the cantaloupe. She doesn’t prod them to open up about their feelings, but some do, she said.
Grom said she relates to them more as a mom than a guard. She teases them when they recoil from the insects that visit the garden, but even that presents the opportunity to teach the difference between beneficial insects and pests.
She also impresses upon them that the skills they’re learning can earn them an honest living someday.
“I tell them their backs are strong. People will pay you to do this when you get out,” she said.
And when she mentions that a salad made from the kinds of greens they produce might command $10 in a fancy restaurant, “that’s when they start listening,” said Brian Fogle, the center’s supervisor of detention and one of the staff members who help with the gardening program.
Grom said she hopes to start a second garden outside the detention facility, to be tended by kids sentenced to community service.
For one young participant, the gardening program is a means of escape.
He has gardened in the past with his grandparents, he said, and to him, it’s therapy.
“Get away,” he said. “Let it ease my mind. … It just feels like a relief.”
(The Beacon Journal typically does not name juvenile offenders, unless they’re involved with especially serious crimes.)
The security concerns of working in a detention center present some challenges. Mulch and soil have to be hauled by the bagful through the center’s halls, because there’s no direct access from the courtyard to the parking lot. The youth are limited to plastic tools, but they manage.
Surprisingly, some of the most hardened inmates have become the most enthusiastic gardeners, Grom and Teodosio said. That may be because they serve longer terms and become more invested in the gardens, Grom said.
The program isn’t magic. The kids still misbehave sometimes, Grom said. But it seems to bring out a playfulness in the young offenders and promote responsibility. They’ll even hand her the rocks they dig out of the garden, because they know they’re not allowed to have them.
“They’re kids,” Teodosio said. “They made bad choices, but maybe they haven’t had the opportunity to use their skills.”
The judge is pleased that some have told her they want to become landscapers. Some have asked Grom if they can come back after they’re released and help in the garden.
She wants them to continue gardening, but not at the juvenile justice center.
“I tell them I don’t want to see them again,” she said.
That would be the best harvest of all.
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or email@example.com. You can also become a fan on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/mbbreck, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.