A 16-year-old juvenile offender sold cucumbers, zucchini and squash he helped grow at a stand inside Luzerne County’s Penn Place Building in Wilkes-Barre Wednesday.
The new produce stand is part of a community garden program set up by the county’s juvenile probation division to teach young offenders new skills and help them open up about their struggles with the probation officers working alongside them.
Sale proceeds go into a fund to help buy more seeds and supplies to continue the garden. Unsold produce is donated to the local soup kitchen.
Michael, the juvenile working the stand Wednesday, said he doesn’t have a garden at his home and never grew anything on his own.
“I might even start a garden myself,” he said. “It’s a good experience.”
Wilkes-Barre resident Dominique Tyson said she had her guard up when she volunteered to work at the community garden in April. She just turned 19 but said she was assigned to juvenile probation for 60 days this year due to an offense when she was 17, which she described as a “bad decision I have owned up to.”
As she and the probation officers nurtured seeds in cups and later buried them in a 50-by-30-foot plot on county-owned property in Forty Fort, Tyson started sharing details about her past and seeking out their advice.
“I didn’t expect to like my probation officers. I thought they were just going to tell me what to do and boss me around,” Tyson said. “I got to know them all very personally, and they know my whole life story. I’ve been through a lot with them.”
Tyson also never anticipated the thrill of seeds sprouting.
“I took pictures and thought, ‘I made these.’ I felt like they were my kids, and they were growing,” said Tyson, who has obtained two part-time jobs and started contemplating a career working with troubled youth since she completed probation.
Probation employee Al Zangardi said another juvenile garden participant recently brought up concerns about his friend who had died in a drug overdose, prompting a deep discussion about life choices. The exchange would have been unlikely if they hadn’t gotten to know each other through gardening, Zangardi said.
“You really get to interact with them and get to their core problems,” he said.
“It helps us talk to them more easily,” chimed in probation worker Neal Johnson, who also helped man the stand Wednesday.
Although the produce stand is new, the garden program started three years ago. Probation worker Theresa Kline said counties are increasingly creating hands-on programs for juveniles, and a garden was selected here largely because the ability to cheaply grow food can help them in adulthood.
The juveniles also grew tomatoes, watermelon, cantaloupe, beans, peas, carrots, peppers and radishes, and the probation department is seeking donations to add fruit trees.
County Court of Common Pleas Judge William Amesbury, who handles most juvenile cases, said participants learn about planting, cultivating, harvesting, selling and how to interact with and provide monetary change to customers at the food stand.
“These are transferable skills that will make them more desirable to potential employers in the future,” Amesbury said. “The garden project is a tremendous concept that gives kids many opportunities for growth and development.”
The stand is open to the public from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesdays during harvest season in the lobby of the Penn Place Building at the corner of Market Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.