For weeks this summer Eric Lester and Jamall Kingham have been busy planting, weeding and watering produce at the Hands of Wonder Garden. By the end of August, they were harvesting everything from kale, lettuce and peppers to tomatoes, herbs and apples.
"I like the idea that this is some truly organic stuff that is really healthy for everyone," says Lester, who is 17 and in his last year of high school.
Kingham, also a high school senior, agrees. "I like it a lot," he says. "I come every Saturday and Sunday. I'm learning a lot of new things. I'm learning how to be a leader because me and Eric have been the two main people in the group. So I'm learning responsibility and a lot of other things."
The first-time gardeners finally got to see customers snap up the produce they had so carefully tended, when it went on sale at Portland's newest farmer's market. This market is not open to the public, however. It's held inside the Donald. E. Long Juvenile Justice Center and its customers are Multnomah County staff.
The Hands of Wonder Garden program, now in its third year is a work experience program for young people under supervision in the community because of a run-in with the law. Most come from disadvantaged families and value the opportunity to earn a small stipend as they learn new skills, says Restorative Justice Coordinator Sidney Morgan, who runs the garden program.
"Our kids have been working very hard on the garden," Morgan, says. "They are learning what it means to be at work, to have to arrive on time, come with a positive attitude and how to work with others and be part of a team
The county has three garden spaces, two at the juvenile justice center on Northeast 68th Street and Halsey, and another in Troutdale. As well as learning basic show-up-and-work skills, the youth learn about organic farming techniques, such as companion planting which uses paired plantings to keep bugs away. So far 130 youth have taken part.
Over the eight weeks that youth work in the program they earn a stipend of $500. That's an important incentive for young people whose families often can't give them pocket money. The three boys who spoke to The Skanner News all said they will use it to buy new clothes for school.
Morgan says the statistics show youth with a criminal history need help to get back on track for success.
"We already know that our youth with a criminal history have had a setback," she said. "A lot of the skills we take for granted are really important to our young people, especially because they may feel like a failure sometimes.
"They don't have a lot of successes to hang on to. So this program really gives them the opportunity to say: 'I don't have to be the label of a bad decision I made in the past. I want to move forward. I want to do better. Here's an opportunity to apply myself in an environment that I'm comfortable in, yet is within the community where I live. And I can be successful.'"
This year is the first year that the produce will go on sale to Multnomah County employees giving the youth an opportunity to learn business skills. All the money raised will go back into the program.
Davontay Mosley, who has just started his eight weeks, says it's exciting to learn something as useful as gardening. "It's a real good experience to learn how to grow organic food for yourself," he says. "That's what's really cool to me."
After they finish the program, youth can find regular jobs through community partners, Morgan says.
"Our youth are able to be successful in those programs because they learned here."