Gardening raises spirits of youths in detention

Two boys with dirt-caked hands stared proudly at the fruits of their labor on a recent weekday morning at the East Baton Rouge Parish Juvenile Detention Center.

The objects of their pride — a collection of flimsy green stems sprouting from a trio of seed trays — represented the tangible results thus far of a new program at the facility that teaches the youths basic gardening skills.

Yet, it was the less measurable progress that beamed across their faces as the two boys spoke about gardening and their plants.

“It makes me feel good,” one of the boys, a 14-year-old, said of the program. He used to enjoy working in his mother’s garden, the teen said, and his father often told him, “ ‘Boy, you better get your hands dirty.’ ”

Relishing a chance to be outside, the boys picked at their seedlings, trying to coach the small stems to stand up tall in the sunlight.

Nearby stood the detention center’s counselor who is also the program’s coordinator and the boys’ mentor, Maisa Shelmire-Asbury, who watched as the boys dirtied their hands.

“They love it,” Shelmire-Asbury said. “They check their plants every day.”

The detention center generally houses youths who have been arrested and are awaiting trial in juvenile court.

While the two boys were the only ones outside with the plants that day, they were not the only youths who have tended to the seedlings since they were planted in the trays. With help, the youths are scheduled to transplant the seedlings into the three raised beds at the facility’s outdoor recreation area sometime this week, said Deron Patin, the Department of Juvenile Services’ interim director.

Seeds for broccoli, cabbage, basil, cilantro, bush beans and lettuce were among those planted. The bush beans growth has outpaced the others thus far, with the bean plants’ stems standing a few inches taller than the others.

Patin built the gardens with the help of some of the youths, even installing irrigation lines himself. Throughout the building process, he taught the youths the basics about construction, Patin said.

The gardening program, funded mostly by the LSU AgCenter’s Greauxing School Gardens Project, teaches youths about gardening through a 30-day curriculum. Because most juveniles don’t stay for 30 days, the program is designed so that the youths can enter it whenever they arrive, Patin said.

Youths must volunteer for the program, and the only ones excluded from participating are those who pose a safety risk to others, Patin said.

While the program involves growing vegetables to be served at the facility’s cafeteria, it also involves additional instruction about gardening, Patin said, which supplements traditional school instruction at the detention center.

Southern University provided the education curriculum for the program, which, as far as Patin is aware, is the first of its kind at a parish juvenile detention center in Louisiana.

A group of juvenile services officials, including Patin and Juvenile Court Judge Kathleen Stewart Richey, pushed for the new program after traveling to Santa Cruz, California, to see a similar course offered at a juvenile detention center there. The trip spurred the implementation of the vegetable garden in Baton Rouge.

Richey, along with Juvenile Court Judge Pamela Taylor Johnson, who did not make the trip to California but does enjoy gardening, both expressed excitement about the program last week.

The judges said they believe the program will benefit everyone involved with it.

While some juveniles may only be involved with the program for a few days, the gardening isn’t supposed to end when they are released. They’ll leave with a hanging basket, seeds and potting soil, so the project can continue to grow outside the confinement of the detention center.

Follow Ben Wallace on Twitter @_BenWallace.