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4-H gives incarcerated youth the freedom to grow vegetables

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Youth up to 17 years of age who have been arrested or adjudicated for breaking the law are housed at juvenile detention facilities. In Sonora, California, while the young people are being detained, the staff at Mother Lode Regional Juvenile Detention Facility strive to create a safe environment for the residents to make positive changes in their lives.

To teach the youths about the food system, JoLynn Miller, UC Cooperative Extension’s 4-H youth development advisor for Tuolumne County, and volunteers began visiting weekly in 2016 to help the residents develop a garden at the detention facility. With grants from a local community group, the youths have learned how to grow their own vegetables and prepare them to eat.

“The youth enjoy the educational aspect of the 4-H program and are excited whenever we harvest a new vegetable,” Edgar Ortega, juvenile corrections officer, wrote in a letter. “When the vegetables are ready, some of the youth along with the help and supervision of the staff make a new culinary experience for their peers.”

Bonnie Plants donated tomato, garlic, fava bean, onion, and basil seedlings. Miller trained volunteers who work with youth at the facility in the same positive youth-development concepts that 4-H volunteers use in 4-H club activities.

“The youth planned and built the raised beds using power drills,” Miller said, acknowledging that it is rare for power tools to be allowed for use by residents in a detention facility. “They worked with the correctional officers to install drip irrigation in the garden.” 

At the end of last season, Miller gave the residents a cooking lesson using green tomatoes and basil from the garden. “We made fried green tomatoes and pesto,” she said.

“We sincerely appreciate the efforts 4-H volunteers provide to enrich the lives of all youth in our community,” said Dan Hawks, chief probation officer in Sonora. “Not only do these projects provide real-world, hands-on instruction and skills to incarcerated youth, but it also provides them with an opportunity to reap the rewards of their own efforts. There is no lesson that can match the sense of accomplishment youth realize when they are able to harvest and consume crops they planted and tended themselves.”

In addition to teaching the residents gardening and cooking, Miller provided their teacher and staff with other 4-H curriculum, including mindfulness.

“The mindfulness program helps the youth develop coping skills and become more cognitively aware of themselves and their surroundings,” Ortega said in his letter. “The youth are open-minded about the different techniques and lessons of the program and, at times, I catch them practicing the different mindfulness technique on their own. I know the mindfulness program is great for our youth because in their own home environments they don’t always have a role model to teach them proper coping skills.”

However, the garden wasn’t an instant success. Using seeds Miller found in the UC Cooperative Extension office, their first lesson was persistence despite delayed satisfaction. “We tried for two summers to grow in the garden beds and not even zucchini would grow. The placement was bad,” she said. The plants needed more sun. 

The 4-H advisor and the youths began seeking funding to buy supplies for the project. With some coaching from Miller, the youths applied for a grant from Farms of Tuolumne County, which advertised a total of $1,500 to be split between awardees. 

“The youth came up with a budget to build the beds of their dreams, but it was $2,200,” Miller said. “They asked for it anyway, knowing they may only get enough money to build one bed.” Because residents are not allowed to leave the juvenile correctional facility, the Farms of Tuolumne County Board of Directors visited the facility to hear the teenagers present their vision for the garden project. Impressed, the board gave them the full $2,200 requested.

“The Farms of Tuolumne County Board of Directors admires the enthusiasm of the young people who are part of this garden project, the dedication of the staff, and the hard work and commitment of JoLynn Miller,” said Marian Zimmerly, FOTC chief financial officer. “The board believes this project can be a positive influence on the young people who find themselves in the facility.”

Like many community groups, Farms of Tuolumne County is suffering financially during the coronavirus pandemic, yet approved another $750 for the garden and other 4-H agriculture projects at Mother Lode Regional Juvenile Detention Facility, saying, “The FOTC Board of Directors continues to view the garden project at the Juvenile Detention Center as very worthy of support.”

Despite the constraints caused by the pandemic, Miller plans to continue the 4-H partnership with Mother Lode Regional Juvenile Correctional Facility on the garden project and other agricultural educational activities.

As the pandemic began, Miller was given permission to use Zoom to deliver embryology lessons and science experiments using eggs. She is projected onto a big screen in a meeting room while the officer on duty walks around the room with an iPad, using its camera and microphone to connect her with the students at different tables doing experiments such as egg dissection and testing egg strength.

“We’d like to finalize a project we started last fall where we brought in baby goats,” Miller said. “They’ve since been harvested, and we want to have our UC Cooperative Extension nutrition, family, consumer sciences advisor Katie Johnson provide a nutrition lesson with the residents making goat tacos.”

As time permits, officers take the youths outside to water plants and harvest crops in the garden.

“I feel the programs and workshops provided by 4-H services are a priceless resource to the youth of our facility,” wrote William Neilsen, senior juvenile corrections officer. “It allows us to diversify programming and provide hands-on and -off educational opportunities within our facility that teach the youth about agricultural resources otherwise unavailable to the youth here. These programs inherently teach the youth responsibility and life skills and the youth gain a wealth of knowledge from these services. Additionally, I strongly believe there is a therapeutic resource provided to staff and youth alike.”

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