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Maricopa County Gardening Program For Juveniles

Posted by Jennifer Smith on

PHOENIX - Maricopa County juvenile probation officials hope vegetables and other plants won't be the only things growing around the raised-bed gardens at the county Juvenile Probation Facility.

KJZZ reports that the county has a program in which good behavior allows teen offenders detained at the facility to tend the gardens. And officials say they believe having the teens in a caring, responsible environment while doing gardening will encourage personal growth while providing means to satisfy community service requirements and earn hourly wages to pay restitution.

Deputy Chief Probation Officer Michaella Aguilar Heslin said rather than treating the kids like criminals, she wanted to show them what it means to be in a caring, responsible environment.

"I feel like if we show them that we trust them, they'll act like they're trusted people," she said. "The kids haven't chosen to be here, but while they're here we see such growth and change. That's our goal, is that when they leave us, they leave in a better place than they were."

Teresa Tschupp, chief of staff for the juvenile probation department, said it would have been unthinkable even a few years ago to have a teen using a sharp tool close to an officer.

"It was deemed risky to be out there gardening with tools," Tschupp said, recalling the first time she pitched the garden idea. "Those decisions were made in a time when our youth were seen even as super-predators. And people didn't really understand who the youth who end up in detention are."

Tschupp said that kind of reasoning delayed the project for years. Now it is happening, with the help of the Maricopa County Cooperative Extension program through the University of Arizona.

Coop Extension Master Gardener Coordinator Yvonne Cooper said she was there for the program's inception when it was still in the idea phase.

"Gardening was kind of at the top of the list on everybody's favorite things to do, so as the program coordinator for the master gardeners, I was delighted," Cooper said. "We rallied and put together teams of volunteers."

Deputy Chief Probation Officer Michaella Aguilar Heslin also helped make the idea a reality.

"We had envisioned the gardens as an activity for them to get outside, commune with nature," Aguilar Heslin said. "To just learn and then to have that interaction with adults."

Probation Officer Wilbur Brown said interacting with the kids allows everyone to understand each other better.

"It's giving them that one-on-one opportunity," Brown said. "All of us get to share. We get to tell them how we got to the place we're at, they get to tell us how they got to their place. It's a good interaction."

Tschupp said any worries about allowing detained youth to use sharp tools when building the gardens were quickly allayed.

"Nobody gave it a second thought because everyone is focused on the project and treating each other like they would treat their family and that does my heart such good."

Story re-posted from ABC 15 Arizona