The Garden of Youth: A One-on-One with Judge Elise Deano on her Juvenile Drug Treatment Court Community Garden Project

Judges and team members of Juvenile Drug Treatment Courts (JDTC) often struggle to find activities in the local community for youth to connect with and enjoy. Research indicates that youths who are engaged in pro-social activities and have a relationship with at least one caring adult have lowered risks of offending or of re-offending (if they have become involved in the court system for illegal behavior) than youths who have few or no connections to their community and do not have an adult in their lives who can serve as a mentor or positive role model.

In the 16-plus months that Judge Elise Deano has been the judicial officer for the Hancock County Youth Court (MS) she has made finding community activities and enrichment activities for her JDTC youth a top priority. She has also been looking for ways to engage youth during court hearings so that she gets to know and understand them and what makes them tick. Judge Deano wants to go beyond the limited picture she gets from a focus on drug tests results, school, and treatment attendance.

With her zeal for exploring and trying new ideas, Judge Deano hit pay dirt, literally, when she came across the idea of having her youth create and maintain a community garden. What follows is Judge Deano's experience with undertaking such a project.  

Where did this idea for a community garden for juvenile drug treatment court come from?

While growing up in Iowa farm country, I was familiar with farming and gardening, but had no experience with growing a garden before I began this project. I adopted this idea from a Michigan adult court that had a community garden and thought this project could translate well with youth in my juvenile drug court. 

How have you incorporated the community garden into the juvenile drug treatment court? 

The youth work in a garden two to three Saturdays every month and spend several hours learning about and taking care of the garden and the livestock. The garden environment offers a different type of treatment setting for youth, to not only get to know each other, but also be supportive and positive to one another. It is a non-threatening place for youth to learn and practice pro-social activities and conversation with peers. In the garden, youth experience group therapy and activities for relationship and team building skills naturally without being artificially constructed. It is great to see that kids are willing to give up a Saturday to work in the garden. For the kids, it is one JDTC activity when no one is lecturing them about drug test results or doing better in school. The kids can just be themselves. 

What was involved in making the community garden a reality? 

There was a vacant field near the courthouse in the heart of downtown St. Bay Louis (MS) that was previously owned by a couple who ran a bakery. Unfortunately, due to Hurricane Katrina, they lost the bakery, but were generous enough to make the land available once they heard my idea for the community garden. We have been fortunate to receive a variety of different donations, from financial assistance to garden equipment, food for livestock, beehives, an old bathtub to be used as an herb garden, and a weather station for youth to learn about weather forecasting.

We partnered with the Mississippi State University Cooperative Extension Service for assistance in planning, implementing and maintaining the garden. Extension agents set up the irrigation system and provide ongoing education to youths on how to grow produce in the garden. Their assistance has been invaluable. I recommend contacting your local state university extension service for projects like this. 

What has made the community garden such a success? 

The garden has helped the kids learn about themselves and their potential. I think the kids are so much more than someone who does drugs. It is important to find something to substitute for drugs. We need to plug them into something that they will connect with. Many people have positive addictions - such as running and doing cross-stitching. The garden project opens up a world to kids of positive activities they can can commit to and be involved in. It's fun for them. They learn so much about a variety of things - how to build things, marketing and the sale of goods, economics, taking care of animals, creating art, farm-to-table food preparation, socializing, and spending time with adults who enjoy sharing their knowledge and teaching them.

Team members like seeing the other sides of youth when they are in the garden and interacting with their peers or working on their own. For me, the connection with the kids since the garden project started feels different. I am better able to see each youth as a distinct individual with specific and different interests, including emerging talents and abilities. Their contributions to and efforts in the garden give them something positive to talk about in court as well. Before the garden project, our communication with the kids related solely to drug tests, treatment, and school, but now there is so much more to talk about and share. Our focus is on the youth and a much fuller spectrum of behavior. 

The garden project also helps me do my job, which is not to punish kids but to change kids to the better. 

A big thank you to Judge Deano for taking the time to share the pro-social activities that the Hancock County Youth Court (MS) are incorporating into their JDTC and the work of the community coming together to help the youths in their program. If you have any additional questions regarding the JDTC community garden, contact Elo Chaparro at echaparro@ncjfcj.org to be connected with Judge Deano. 

 

 

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