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Garden teaches prisoners about patience, perspective and other lessons

By Erica Marks

For the Sunday Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Babies hold pumpkins and sit by baskets spilling over with fall produce. Women making funny animal noises try to get the little ones to look in a certain direction and smile. Smart phones and digital cameras circle the children like drones trying to get the perfect shot.

This is a scene played out every fall among families with little children. But this photo shoot in late September was a little different. These moms grew all of the produce in the baskets and in their children's hands, and they all live together at the Greenbrier Birthing Center, a federal correctional facility for moms and babies.

One of the gardeners was going home that week and we wanted to commemorate her work before she left. The day was a celebration of everything she and the dozen other moms grew this season--pumpkins, tomatoes, collard greens, and babies, healthy and beautiful in the early autumn sunshine.

"Working in the garden was something for my daughter and me to do together. She loves being outside ... I learned that I love to be outside," said Tonya (not her real name), the woman going home in a few days.

Set on the banks of the Greenbrier River in the Allegheny Mountains, the Greenbrier Birthing Center is home to pregnant women in their third trimester and moms with babies up to one year old. They come to this place from all over the country. According to Director Starlena Robertson, they have been convicted of felonies, "usually white collar crimes, drugs, parole violations, but no violent crimes. And they have not gotten into any trouble at previous facilities."

I visited the center last winter to see if I could sign them on as Grow Appalachia participants. Grow Appalachia was created by John Paul DeJoria, owner of John Paul Mitchel Systems, a hair care company, and Patron Tequila. Grow Appalachia seeks to improve food security and health in Appalachia by supporting family and community gardens across the region.

I work for the Grow Appalachia program located at High Rocks Educational Corp., whose mission is to "educate, empower, and inspire young West Virginia women." With all of our experience working with young women, it seemed like a natural fit to partner with the mothers at the center to grow a garden. However, getting off the ground (or into the ground in this case) was not so easy.

Initially supportive of the idea, the staff developed reservations about becoming a participating garden site. They worried that the residents, many from urban areas, would not buy in to the project and more work would fall to the already very busy staff. However, a small group of gardening volunteers from nearby Hillsboro rallied behind the idea and promised that they would bear the burden of any extra work.

Lynmarie Knight, also a Grow Appalachia participant, explains why she was excited to volunteer for about the garden project. "What interested me most about volunteering at GBC was the opportunity to impact more than one generation at a time. By planting a garden with the mothers, we plant seeds for the future of their families. Through working with a relatively small group of people, we are able to reach so many more, their babies, their other children at home, their partners, etc. Also, I was interested in sharing the therapeutic effects of gardening."

With assurance that we could carry the program if the mothers weren't interested, the staff agreed to have a garden this season. Robertson placed a decorative flag that said "Our Garden" at the edge of the plot. A maintenance worker plowed the ground, and we held our first meeting in April with the women to plan the garden.

 Case Manager Ollie Berkley said she was surprised by the level of the women's involvement.

"It just hit. It hit at the perfect time with the perfect group. They've shown all their families and the church groups (the garden). It's been an integral part of the summer here."

"I came out here every day in the morning and in the evening," said Abby (not her real name). "I felt part of something meaningful. It was something meaningful I could do with my son."

Though small in scale, under the care of the women the garden produced about 100 pounds of vegetables. It was one of the best performing gardens of the 30 supported by High Rocks' Grow Appalachia program this year. With a dozen sunflowers towering over the garden, it was also one of the prettiest.

"I told them I wished my garden looked like that," said Tammy Lewis, coordinator of the Mothers and Infants Nurturing Together program.

Some women tried foods from the garden that they had never eaten before such as squash, collard greens, green beans and cucumber.

"I never ate a salad in my life. I'm a salad eater now," said Tonya.

"It's something we take for granted, "said Robertson. "We all grow gardens here, but they didn't know that they could do that for themselves." She said that growing the garden gave the women new confidence in themselves. "They can say they did that on their own. They didn't have to have a man or anyone else to do it for them."

Tonya earned her GED during her time at the Birthing Center. She said she will also take her gardening experience with her when she leaves. "My mom is really excited that I can do this. I have to have a garden when I get home. It saves money. Instead of buying food, I get to pick it from my backyard."

"In one season, this project became something more than anyone imagined. The opportunity for learning exchanges between community members, staff and the women are limitless," said Brynn Kusic, another garden volunteer and Grow Appalachia participant.

She worked in the kitchen with the women to teach them how they could use what they grew. They made pesto from their basil, they steamed collard greens and they sautéed summer squash. Staff shared family recipes. One afternoon she helped the women to make and to can applesauce so they could learn how to preserve the produce that they grow.

Abby is excited to make baby food for her son when she gets home and plants her own garden. She's also excited to grow tomatoes and peppers to make her own salsa. "I was surprised that I enjoyed this so much."

"The garden is about patience and perspective," said Kusic. "It is a place for contemplation and healing for people at a crossroads. I think that is the rehabilitation lesson that is happening there."

In a recent meeting of the board of directors for the prison, Abby read a statement about what being at the GBC meant for her and her son. "Working in the garden showed me for the first time there are fun things to do while being sober. It has given me hope for a healthy life for me and my son."

Erica Marks is Grow Appalachia coordinator and may be emailed at Erica@highrocks.org.


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