*Published in The Tuscaloosa News
TUSCALOOSA, Ala.—The Druid City Garden Project is unearthing opportunities in the Tuscaloosa area and will soon to reach a very different group than its usual students at local schools—residents at the Juvenile Detention Center in Tuscaloosa.
The DCGP is a non-profit with a mission to educate people about making smart, sustainable food choices. The project was created in 2010 by Andrew Beck Grace after he and his wife, Rashmi, pledged to eat strictly locally grown food for a year. Grace is the president of the board for DCGP and his wife is the education director.
Students ranging from grades kindergarten to fifth come out to their respective locations at University Place and Stillman Heights Elementary schools twice a week, where they gain experience in the garden while also building math, science, and nutrition skills.
Cathy Wood, Education Director and Assistant Director of the Tuscaloosa Co. Juvenile Detention Facility, said the project’s mission is rehabilitation.
“We try to expose them to new experiences and help them find strengths they didn’t know they had,” Wood said.
The facility’s curriculum incorporates other forms of therapy, too—ranging from equine therapy, welding, and teaching residents basic electrical and plumbing skills. Wood said anything traditional doesn’t work, so she tries to think out of the box.
“Some of them are great kids that just made a bad decision or two. They have so much hope,” Wood said.
Lindsay Turner, director of the DCGP, said she gets excited when she thinks about the opportunities in the project’s grasp.
Turner said the facility approached her in September about partnering with them, and she is excited to utilize gardening with the children.
“We will be working on education, but more importantly rehabilitation,” Turner said.
Horticultural therapy will be the focus of the garden.
The DCGP will hire a part-time garden teacher for the center’s garden. The chosen candidate will work five hours a week, and DCGP is looking for someone with a background in education who works well with people.
Turner said they are working with the art teacher at the center so juveniles can help design the garden beds that will be constructed.
But this isn’t the only opportunity that DCGP has dug up.
The DCGP will be at four more schools by next August—two in Alberta, one in Woodland Forest Elementary, and a fourth that hasn’t been selected yet.
Turner said school gardens accomplish so much. Teaching gardening skills in schools has proven to raise test scores and increase parental involvement. She said it’s important for students to be cognizant of food choices they’re making.
Multiple education officials have asked for DCGP to come to their schools.
“We’ve had far more requests than we can facilitate,” Turner said.
Schools must meet criteria to be selected for the garden incubation program.
Turner said the schools “have to want them” and the principal must be supportive, otherwise the project won’t work. The school forms a garden committee, which consists of school officials and teachers. The committee acts as DCGP’s liaison to the garden.
DCGP has a three-year model. They stay at the school for three years, and then turn the garden over to the school.
But DCGP’s path hasn’t been entirely peachy. Turner said her biggest issue as director is finding funding.
The project charges the selected school a monetary fee after it is chosen.
“Being a 501(c)(3) [non-profit organization], money is tight all around,” Turner said.
DCGP is applying for a community development grant, and holds fundraisers, to support the project. Turner said Tuscaloosa has few large corporations to act as sponsors, and with the University of Alabama’s presence in Tuscaloosa there is a disproportionate amount of non-profits for the number of citizens. She said she hopes that DCGP will be a model program for the state of Alabama and that in turn will increase funding.
Turner said her favorite thing about her job is the students.
With the four additional schools, DCGP will be reaching more than 2,000 students per week. Her favorite days are when she goes to the gardens with the children.
“It’s fantastic to see fourth graders eating kohlrabi,” Turner said.
Tuscaloosa has a project that empowers its citizens to make smarter food choices. All it took to find was a little digging.