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BCDC’s Youth Garden: A “Journey to a Fresh Start”

August 15, 2011 - Behind the razor wire of the Baltimore City Detention Center’s Eager Street entrance, along the ancient wall that separates that holding facility from the 200-year old prison next door, six teenagers are excitedly playing with a worm, handling dirt, and searching for cucumbers amid cascading green chutes.

This unlikely garden---nearly 20 raised plots tended by the kids---fits perfectly with the many positive changes instituted by DPDS Commissioner Wendell France. BCDC Assistant Warden Gwen Oliver was able to secure key donations from the Rock City Church in Towson, as well as unselfish devotion from a man named Gary Ashbeck, a “northern Wisconsin farm boy” who loves working with kids, most of whom haven’t ever seen a garden, much less grown one.

Dubbed “Journey to a Fresh Start” by a 16-year old girl who’s awaiting her fate on a murder charge, the BCDC garden exists thanks to Mr. Ashbeck’s weekly visits. It’s funded by donations and grants from The Samaritan Women under the name “Baltimore City Sprouts.” Mr. Ashbeck began with an Open Society Institute grant, working community gardens in West Baltimore, then collaborated with Hand in Hand, which mentors urban kids.

DPDS got the ball rolling by purchasing asparagus, cucumbers, watermelon, peppers and pumpkins. I placed a requisition and went to purchase them. Mr. Ashbeck provided sunflowers, seeds and some other vegetables.

The garden got a huge boost thanks to the generosity of the Rock City Church in Towson, which has donated tomato plants and the raised boxes in which the abundant produce grows. The church has a long history of helping inner city neighborhoods, and operates both women’s and men’s transitional housing, which have been utilized often by detainees and inmates leaving Division of Pretrial Detention and Services facilities.

Says Ms. Oliver: “Not only have the juveniles taken ownership of the garden. But staff can be seen canvassing the grass looking at the vegetables that are in there. Many have said that they have never seen tomato plants or the other vegetables before and have marveled about their stages of growth. With the enormous tomatoes, the juveniles are proud that they have not used chemicals in their garden. The program is literally ‘growing,’ thanks to the vision of our Commissioner and the generous assistance Mr. Ashbeck and the Rock City Church.”

The youthful gardening novices are all facing serious adult charges, and are at BCDC awaiting their fates: release; a move to treatment or another alternative program; a move down to the juvenile system; or the harsh reality of prison time in an adult correctional facility.

Mr. Ashbeck, whose vast gardening experience had never before taken him behind razor wire, is thrilled with what he’s seen so far. “I did not expect how much I would enjoy coming in and helping the kids create the garden,” he says. “I have really become energized in their very quick transformation. Most did not even want to put their hands in the dirt our first day. They are very excited to see how much the garden has grown, and you can see the ownership and pride in them, which I find infectious.”

DPSCS salutes the continuing culture of positive change under the leadership of Commissioner France, and thanks everyone involved in this unique program, which has given teenagers a potential “journey to a fresh start.”