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David's Life-Change in the Garden

Jun 30, 2014

David, a 17 year old youth offender, began his 4 month stay at the Central Counties Youth Center in central Pennsylvania in February 2014.  Youth offenders have an average of 10 days at this site while the court figures out what to do with them next, so 4 months was a really long time!  During these months we had twice a week group horticultural therapy activities at the center. These activities involved group work and individual work, included connections to our food system and the natural world, encouraged the youth to pursue more education and a possible career working with plants, and involved introspective goal setting and journaling about what was individually learned.  Youth shared observations with each other and were encouraged to interact with positive words and actions.  

While we were not permitted to discuss what he did that resulted in his detention time, David did share with me that when he was home he drank excessive amounts of alcohol.  He had other struggles as well, things that he was dealing with since childhood, and to work through these root issues is a main goal of the placement he was finally assigned to in June 2014.  The day before he was leaving CCYC, I was very encouraged by his solemn commitment to turn his life around and change his destructive habits.  We sent him out with many great ideas from the garden!

The garden was a place that David came alive.  The youth are not permitted outside often, so on Horticultural Therapy: Plants and Life program days, he was always super eager to get outside!  David was curious about different plants, all kinds of plants.  We often talked ahead of time about the activity we would be working on, but the activity often just couldn't come fast enough!  His favorite thing was to plant and transplant...working with the soil, moving plants into new pots and giving them more space to grow.  When we finally did get outside in the spring and move some of our transplants to the garden, it was fun to watch him methodically move around the raised garden beds, tending and weeding and watching and sharing observations.  It was great to see him confidently and independently tend to the growing garden beds.  

Through our talking about all different garden subjects, David showed especially strong interest in grafting and hydroponics.  Due primarily to safety, space, and resources, these are not things we're able to do at CCYC, so I shared what I could through conversation and written materials, and encouraged him to explore these ideas through practice when the opportunity arises.  His guardian Aunt and Uncle have a garden, though his experiences in their garden have been few.  I was thrilled that working with the garden at CCYC created within David a deep desire to work side by side with his Aunt and Uncle in their garden and to use this as a platform for building a stronger relationship.

Some of David’s own words:

How much gardening and plant experience did you have prior to HT programs?      “None…a little with my Aunt and Uncle’s vegetable garden.”

What did you like best about HT sessions?         “It helped bring feelings to life and the plants go through many of the same stages as we do, humans and plants have a lot in common.”

Has working in the garden given you an increased capacity to make healthy choices?        “I liked seeing how plants go through different stages and growth.  Plants can live for a long time if we take care of them.  And they grow like humans do…they grow quicker.  They die quickly too.  (Smile…because there were many that died because he didn’t water them.)  J

“I could have been in prison.  It makes me realize I have to look forward to the things I have to change for.  I have to change for myself first so I can help my daughter.  This is my biggest goal right now.  I’ve been thinking a lot about changes.  Thinking about positives and negatives.  I’ve realized a lot and that I cannot just do what I want to do.”

David left CCYC on June 6th, a couple weeks after the birth of his daughter, and 6 days before his 18th birthday.  He took a lot of my hope and encouragement with him, and months of positive experiences with plants in and out of the garden.  I continue to hope and pray that David is consistent in his dedication to a new life path, that he is able to restore and create healthy networks of support people around him, and that he continues to use the wisdom of working with plants to help shape the journey ahead!


We are grateful for the resources we received through the KGI grant!  THANK YOU Roger and all the partners that helped make this possible!  We continue to see the benefits of how lives can be impacted in positive ways through the use of plants and gardening….what a gift it is to be involved in such a capacity!

(Photo:  David with his journal are on the left, with plants (violas, cabbage) and plant materials (dried lavender, sunchoke tubers) we discussed and planted in the garden around Mother's Day.  Due to respecting confidentiality, photo does not include faces.)

~Nellie Bhattarai, HTR

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