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At-Risk Youth Learn Gardening, Job Skills
HATTIESBURG -- At-risk youth in a residential, military-style program in South Mississippi are learning gardening as part of training to get them back on the straight and narrow.
The Pine Belt Master Gardeners meet once a week with young people in the Youth Challenge Program at Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg. The Master Gardeners spend the morning helping the youth with a gardening project, and the afternoon instructing them in landscape maintenance and basic conservation.
Lee Taylor, Forrest County Extension agent, oversees the program and coordinates the volunteer efforts of the Mississippi State University Extension Service Master Gardeners.
"I was looking for something we could do as a Master Gardener group that would make a difference and that would pull us together as a group," Taylor said. "Right now there is almost warfare going on to save our youth, and for a lot of these kids, this is their last chance. Without this program, a lot of the youth could end up in prison or dead. This gives us an avenue to reach some kids that we've never reached before."
Master Gardeners start with the basics of soil, plant biology and plant selection, then teach the youth principles of landscape design and maintenance. They follow up this instruction with work, installing and maintaining landscape features on the military base.
Alice Calloway, Master Gardener and landscape contractor with Calloway Landscaping, is working with the youth to landscape the area outside the base's chapel.
"We teach them everything from the ground up," Calloway said. "I also tell them that you don't have to have a college degree to become certified as a landscape contractor."
Taylor said projects are chosen that include classroom instruction and outdoor activities.
"Most kids need activities to burn off energy, so gardening was a logical way to do this," Taylor said. "Since this is a military base, cleanliness and functionality are important, not landscaping."
Albert Sterling, Master Gardener and retired Chicago school system administrator, said his colleagues teach the youth that they have to follow a plan as they do their horticulture work.
"The design is part of the planning," Sterling said. "You have to look at what you already have, what you want and what can be added to develop the landscape. You must keep in mind things like the type of plants, accessibility of water and the climate needs of the plants you choose."
Twice a year, the voluntary Youth Challenge Program at Camp Shelby accepts 238 males and females ages 16 to 18 who have dropped out of school but are not in legal trouble. Education focuses on eight areas such as community service and education excellence. Participants have the opportunity to earn their high school equivalency diploma.
"Our objective is to take these kids and help them complete all eight core components. We try to turn them into good citizens who will go into the workforce or college and start paying taxes," said Mississippi National Guard Major Rickey Hosey, project coordinator.
Hosey said most youth join the workforce after graduation, some go on to community college and others join the military. A non-residential part of the program extends 12 months after graduation, supplying the youth with mentors and tracking their success.
Col. William Crowson, program director, said 90 percent of the youth remain productive members of society 12 months after graduation.
"Once a kid drops out of school, in nine months 50 percent are in trouble with the law," Crowson said. "After 12 months in our program, less than 10 percent are in trouble."
Crowson said this program has no cost to the youth, but costs the state $9,500 a student. It costs $28,000 to incarcerate someone for one year.
"After they graduate, most of them are living productive lives and paying taxes instead of using tax money," Crowson said.
Not only is this program a crime deterrent, but it also offers a second chance at a high school diploma. Youth Challenge has the highest GED pass rate in the state, with 77 percent of graduates earning their diploma. Those pursuing a GED through the Department of Corrections have a 16 to 17 percent pass rate, Crowson said.
While academics are important, so is leadership and what the program calls follow-ship.
"If you can't follow orders, you can't hold a job," Crowson said.
About 10 Pine Belt Master Gardeners are involved with Youth Challenge. The fall 2000 class was the second they have worked with, but they hope to continue this program in the years ahead.
Contact: Lee Taylor, (601) 545-6083