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Growing Up: Learning Life Lessons in the Garden

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Prior to coming to Woodland Hills in early 2010, Tony* had never heard of 4-H, nor had he spent time in a garden. Seven months later, he and three other teens in Woodland Hills' residential treatment program earned a trip to the Minnesota State Fair, where their garden project earned first prize.

Though the prize was a definite plus, each participant of the program also walked away with a sense of accomplishment, having learned the benefits of teamwork and experiencing the bond that often forms as a result.

Gardening has always been a part of the services Woodland Hills provides to youth, dating back a century to its roots at a Catholic orphanage. Today, all youth in the day treatment or residential treatment programs take husbandry classes as part of their coursework at Woodland Hills Academy.

Husbandry Specialist Anne Macaulay meets with the students weekly. Many, like Tony, have never gardened. She guides them through the process, step by step. "We go through seed catalogs,"

said Macaulay. "It's all about learning. Some kids have no idea what

can grow up here."

Each student group plants its own garden, approximately 30 by 50 feet in dimension. The students choose from vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers.

While Macaulay focuses on gardening basics - such as the parts of a seed, the necessary things needed to make it sprout, and which plants can successfully grow next to one another - the students practice life skills far greater than simple gardening techniques, such as the importance of an honest day's labor.

"We learned it's hard work," said Tony. "We gotta get down on our knees and get dirty and pick weeds. It's not easy to control a garden."

"You should see the amazement on the faces and the excitement when that little seed comes out of the ground and then it turns into a corn stalk," said Macaulay.

"They learn how that happens and why that happens, and it's directly dependent on them for the care that they give. There's that correlation between how you care for it and the livelihood of it.

Students want their garden to succeed and learn quickly how to make that goal a reality. Macaulay says the students quickly realize they must complete the work for which they're responsible or their garden

won't thrive. "I've never had a group that hasn't had a beautiful garden," said Macaulay.

In addition to teaching responsibility, the gardening courses at Woodland Hills are an important form of therapy. Students come from a variety of backgrounds. Many are battling addictions and are victims of neglect or abuse. Some have committed crimes. Others are dealing with mental

health issues. Macaulay tells each of them that they come to the garden with a clean slate.

"I can see students come down carrying some pretty heavy stuff on their shoulders, and I just make the request of them to park their troubles at the barn, allow themselves the time to enjoy what we're doing."

That means listening to the sounds of nature, recognizing when there is a task to be completed and learning to trust her when she offers them a taste of the food they've just grown, often vegetables they've never before eaten, such as Brussels Sprouts.

"They learned that they do actually like those," Macaulay laughed. Gardening is also something that can be adapted. Macaulay purposely teaches her students about container gardening in hopes they will continue what they've learned. She recognizes many of them will not be returning to a home with a yard and space for gardening. Students also learn the

ancient art of Bonsai, caring for a tree they can ultimately take home with them.

As summer progresses, the students continue their work, harvesting and enjoying vegetables that sprout early. The big payoff comes in late August at Woodland Hills' annual Harvest Fest. Each group of students contributes to the festival meal with food they've grown and prepared. Dinner is served to Woodland Hills staff and students and other invited guests. A bit

of a friendly competition usually crops up between student groups as they show off their gardens and what they've harvested.

The event is so popular that some youth who've completed their treatment prior to harvest time have jokingly asked to extend their stay so they can see their garden through to completion.

"These students are so proud of what they have grown and how their gardens

look," said Macaulay. "They're outside in their gardens enjoying the benefits of their long term work."

Harvest Fest isn't the only occasion students enjoy the fruits of their labor. About half the food grown is given the Woodland Hills kitchen, to be prepared and served at mealtimes throughout the year.

Community members also enjoy the fresh produce. In addition to maintaining

their group gardens, students help in a community garden that covers a third of an acre. Last year, Woodland Hills students set up a farmer's market at the corner of Woodland Avenue and Calvary Road in Duluth,

valuable lessons in math, marketing and business.

Students round out the season by preparing their garden for winter, pulling weeds and applying compost. Many of the young people will have left Woodland Hills before the next growing season begins, but they know their hard work will benefit the students who come after them. Meanwhile, they take with them the lessons they have learned as they begin their new future - a future much like seed packets, filled with potential and hope.

*Due to confidentiality rules, his last name is kept private.