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Incarcerated teens cultivate veggies, confidence, responsibility

For many of the young men at the Finger Lakes Residential Center (FLRC) in Lansing, N.Y., there is little escape from the daily constraints of being in residence at a secure juvenile detention center. The boys, ages 14-17, are segregated in the facility in small units, and their daily routine is strictly regulated. However, this summer, many of them got to work each week in a garden supported in part by Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE).

Marjorie Olds, J.D. '76, consultant for the New York State Office of Children and Family Services at FLRC, along with the FLRC administrative team, wanted to start a program that would help the youths gain skills and interests necessary to prosper in their home communities. The Office of Children and Family Services offered to fund a garden program and enlisted the help of Monika Roth, agriculture and horticulture program leader at CCE Tompkins County (CCETC), Roth said, because gardening was "healthy and attractive to kids and staff," and youth could be involved with it after they returned home.

CCETC and FLRC staff members have been collaborating to implement a garden-based learning program at the center to teach the boys gardening skills in the classroom and through hands-on learning experiences since May. The program also serves as a pilot to encourage other facilities around the state to implement similar programs. Members of CCE are developing a manual -- complete with lesson plans, activities and resource guides -- for garden-based learning, and they hope to hold training sessions throughout the state this year.

Since its launch, the program has provided about 60 FLRC residents with gardening lessons. Many of the boys come from urban areas and have no previous gardening experience.

This summer, the boys planted, nurtured and harvested such crops as salad greens, herbs, watermelon and grapes. Connie Bernard, a retired FLRC teacher, taught gardening skills as well as integrated pest management, soil and nutrient management, and composting in the classroom. After harvesting the crops, the young men learned how to preserve and prepare the food they grew.

Audrey Baker '09, who helps CCETC coordinate the program, hopes to incorporate her work with institution-based food and garden-based learning when she enters the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs in January. She noted that the garden gives the young men responsibility and a sense of accomplishment when they see the fruits of their labor.

"The team aspect of it even goes across 'unit' lines, which is to say across gang lines," Baker said. The boys are not allowed to interact across units in the facility. However, after canning pickles, the boys taste-tested pickles from other units and commented respectfully on their recipes, she said. The program also gives the teens a chance to interact with such role models as Geoffrey Tam '13, who served as a summer intern coordinator for the project. The garden, he said, provided the boys with "a sink for their energy, creativity, frustrations, and it allowed them to create positive change in a way that granted them power and control over something tangible."

Olds believes the garden not only gives the young men a place to gain confidence and learn about healthy lifestyles but also tools to become productive members of society.

Future plans, said Roth, include a greenhouse during the winter months and a hydroponic garden.

Alexa McCourt '14 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.


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