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Incarcerated youth blossom while working with 4-H, Master Gardeners

The Issue

Roughly 1 in 5 U.S. children have mental health problems, and only 20 percent to 25 percent receive treatment (CA Adolescent Health Collaborative, 2010). In the juvenile justice system, some studies report as many as two-thirds of adolescents have mental health disorders. Alameda County Probation's Camp Sweeney is an unlocked 24-hour facility serving boys aged 14 to 18 years. The teens at Camp Sweeney exhibit a range of maladaptive behaviors and have various physical and mental health needs, which should be treated as part of their rehabilitation.

What Has ANR Done?

After conducting a needs assessment of the Camp Sweeney boys, 4-H advisor Charles Go, Master Gardener Coordinator Sue Lesica, Behavioral Health Clinician Shannon Smith, and Alameda County Probation/Camp Sweeney staff initiated "Project GROW" (Gardening Rejuvenates Our Wellness) in 2010.

The 8-week program looks like a gardening and food program with each Master Gardener volunteer instructing two youths. Probation and Behavioral Health staff are on site to monitor and contribute. Like experiential group therapy, as the boys work on the garden, they are also working on their issues by sharing, acting things out, talking to project leaders, etc. Thus, this "hands on" program begins to address the youths' complex mental/behavioral health and developmental needs.

Preliminary results show that boys who take part in the program exhibit more positive behaviors, more positive support, work cooperatively, share ideas, and are more open to new things (i.e. food, ideas). Demonstrating caring and connection, participants ask, "Are we having program today?" when they see GROW leaders at Camp Sweeney.

The Payoff

Project GROW engages youth in productive activity

All Camp Sweeney youth benefit from eating fresh produce from the garden, giving the GROW participants a sense of accomplishment and increased self-esteem. By addressing the various needs of incarcerated boys, Project GROW engages the youth, provides them with another reason to stay at camp, and deters them from committing more crimes and being placed at the Juvenile Justice Center. The youth, agency and community benefit. It costs Alameda County $3600 per month to house a youth at the Juvenile Justice Center, whereas it costs about $1800 at Camp Sweeney.

Clientele Testimonial

When asked what they plan on doing with knowledge they gain from Project GROW, the boys wrote:
"Becoming a chef and a Junior Master Gardener."
"Planting a garden with my dad and brothers at my house."
"Teaching other people who want to grow a garden the proper ways how to garden and using what I learned in good ways instead of bad."


Supporting Unit:

Alameda County 4-H And Master Gardener Programs
Charles Go, cggo@ucdavis.edu
Sue Lesica, sclesica@ucdavis.edu