Counties across America face reduced budgets, but community members still expect the same level of services. To meet this challenge, strategies can be utilized to minimize costs and maximize benefits while creating an opportunity for growth. One youth-centered organization in Texas took this opportunity for growth literally by implementing a garden.
Challenge: Creating Service-Driven Youth
Rockwall County Texas Juvenile Services provides support for youth undergoing court-ordered probation. In August 2011, Juvenile Services Director, Angie Scalf, asked three probation officers to supervise youth community service. A typical community service task is picking up roadside trash, but Scalf had something much bigger in mind to get these youth motivated. She tasked the probation officers with beginning the Junior Master Gardener Program to train juveniles to establish and maintain a garden. Director Scalf saw gardening as the appropriate strategy because it could offer the participating at-risk youth with service projects such as helping maintain the county Discovery Garden and Community Vegetable Garden (overseen by Rockwall County Master Gardeners). Youth would be able to see the benefits of their labor while contributing to the community. When funding became available, it was time to bring the garden onsite.
Challenge: Garden Location
Probation officers Matt Margot, Joe Klinkovsky, and Bert Macias, were happy to hear the news of the forthcoming youth garden. Onsite supervision of youth community service projects would be easier for the officers to manage amongst their other probation duties. However, with this news came many more questions and challenges. The juvenile service offices are located in an old warehouse building. Where could an onsite garden go? Is there even water access nearby? Once Officer Margot spotted a water spigot in a drought ridden patch of land by the air conditioner unit, the dream of a garden became plausible.
Challenge: Obtaining Garden Know-How
The plan for establishing a garden was set into motion as designs began floating around. However, the question of how students would obtain the necessary garden skills remained. Although Director Scalf is a Master Gardener, the officers who would be monitoring the youth in the garden were not as experienced. Two of the officers decided to take part in the Master Gardener training during the fall. They completed training requirements in November of 2011 and put their newfound knowledge to use as they trained their students in best practices for their region.
In order to support the plans and progress of establishing a youth garden at the juvenile service center, the officers applied for grant funding. Unfortunately they were not awarded, but the officers were already committed to making this dream happen. They were able to reorganize their existing budget to continue development and focus on one piece of the garden at a time until more funding becomes available. The initial design for the garden site included a vegetable garden (approximately 30 X 40 feet) and two raised beds. They started watering the ground to loosen the hard, cracked earth. The beds were prepared with a purchased soil mix and the students went to work planting the beds. Although a large expense, the investment of a Husquarvana rototiller was essential to break up the Texas soil for the vegetable garden. During the spring and summer of 2012, youth amended and planted the vegetable beds and started fruit and nut production trees.
Opportunities for collaboration arose as the Rockwall County Agri-Life Extension Agent approached the officers about installing onsite rose trial gardens. Trial gardens are used by Extension agents to study plant varieties for a number of characteristics in order to inform consumers who want to purchase the plants for their location and climate. The juveniles prepared three beds with six different trial rose bushes in each giving youth the opportunity to participate in the rose trial garden judging. The county road maintenance department donated and trucked mulch, made from local tree-trimmings, for the vegetable beds. Program leaders are still hopeful that sponsors will recognize the initial efforts of the youth gardening on county land as “in-kind contributions” and aide the program with future funding.
It is protocol to keep male and female students at juvenile services separated. Males attend the garden program three days each week while females only attend one day. Additionally, students typically only visit the center a couple of times. Without a regular schedule it is difficult to ensure all students are having a meaningful experience in the garden. The leaders have decided to establish a cut flower garden designated for females only. Since girls are at the center less frequently than boys, having their own garden will give the girls the opportunity to take ownership of their own space and participate in each stage of gardening from planting to harvest. The variety of gardens available to all youth provides tasks regardless of the frequency and timing of their visits.
Choosing to Grow When Challenged
Although the program is still in the infant stages of development, in less than a year, numerous benefits have resulted from integrating a garden. Students have planted, mulched, weeded, harvested and tend the trial roses weekly. Through these practices, the students have developed an interest in educating others about gardening. The leaders hope to teach students the whole process of gardening including planting, maintaining, harvesting, and the economics of taking the produce to the local farmer’s market where it can be sold to help pay for court costs and restitution related to their court orders. The officers also plan to teach the students food preparation, by making salsa and canning fruit. The county juvenile probation department believes the experiences resulting from performing community service in the garden far exceeds the standard community service activity of picking up trash on the side of the road.
The challenges ahead of Rockwall County Texas Juvenile Services one year ago were more than any of the officers imagined. However, once they collectively decided to find a way to make a garden program work, the opportunities grew. Ultimately, the strategy of implementing a garden benefits the youth involved, while impacting members of the community along the way. The obstacles faced by Rockwall County Texas Juvenile Services over the past year have been difficult. They have been able to overcome those challenges by collectively determining to continue focusing their efforts on the youth they serve and make their garden work within the confines of their budget. Is your garden project facing budget cuts or scheduling challenges? Remember that growth and development can take place in very small ways. Don’t be discouraged if things move slower than you would like. Gardening is as much about the process and the skills and lessons learned along the way as it is about a harvest. By staying positive and continuing to gather support for your program you will eventually see your garden vision become a reality.
Challenge: Help Rockwall County Texas Juvenile Services Serve our Youth
If you have been inspired by this story and want to know how you can help this organization better meet the needs of the youth it serves, contact Juvenile Probation Officer, Matt Margot.
Meet Contributing Author, Becky Wivagg
Becky Wivagg has contributed 33 years of service teaching pre-k to college age students. Becky is retired from the Texas Region12 Education Service Center where she trained elementary science teachers in 80 school districts in central Texas as a Science Specialist. Becky values environmental education as expressed through her certifications as a GLOBE (Glaobal Learning and Observation to Benefit the Environment) and GEMS (Great Explorations in Math and Science) trainer. Becky is a Disney American Teacher Award Honoree and a Hunt County Teacher of the Year. She is a contributing author to Harvard Project Zero's Creative Classroom Series and a grant proposal peer reviewer for NASA's global climate education research. Becky is a Texas Master Gardener and serves on the 2011-2012 Kids Gardening Advisory Board.