CENTRALIA, Wash. - Maple Lane School near Centralia houses some of the most serious juvenile offenders in the state...and also, some of its best gardeners. In order to be a member of the Maple Lane Garden Club, young men who live at the school have to keep up their grades and stay out of trouble. In return, they spend class time tending a quarter of an acre of fresh produce. The school cafeteria uses some of it, but most is donated to the local food bank.
Brian McElfresh, mental health coordinator and Garden Club adviser at Maple Lane School, supervises the young gardeners. His wife is an organic farmer, and he says digging in the dirt offers a special kind of healing power.
"These young men are using hoes and rakes and knives - and it's not an issue, because they're doing something brand new and something that they want to do; they don't want to lose this opportunity. It's really something to watch on a weekly basis - as the plants are growing, so too we watch their minds get enriched and mature through this process."
Maple Lane is slated to close as part of state budget cuts, and the young men there face eventual transfers to other facilities if plans don't change. However, McElfresh says the garden project has sparked a new wave of support for keeping the school open, from its food-bank clients and from local businesses and farmers that donated seeds and tools.
"It really has been a shining star for the staff of Maple Lane School as we go through a pretty dark, cloudy time, to know that local folks in the community are in support of us and are there to empower us. So again, it's that win-win-win."
Participants get school credit for their garden work, as well as some job skills. McElfresh says they also nibble on their share of freshly-picked produce, some for the first time. Jalapeno-eating contests are not uncommon.
"It's funny to watch them brag to each other about the garden skills they possess and how they want to be better than the others. There's certainly competition - they're teenage kids. We're not gonna escape that."
One young man recently released from Maple Lane has decided to farm for a living, McElfresh says. The Garden Club's only limitation has been that it cannot accommodate all the kids who want to be part of the program, he adds.