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Sowing the seeds of hope
New Oriana House gardening program growing more than just plants

Legal News Reporter

Published: July 16, 2019

A new program designed to help change problematic behavior by instilling hope and providing valuable hands-on skills to female offenders has taken root at the Cliff Skeen Community Based Correctional Facility in Akron.

Women housed at the 70-bed facility, which is for female felony offenders in need of long-term rehabilitative programming for up to 180 days, have been busy with hands-on gardening lessons through a pilot community gardening program with Let’s Grow Akron and the OSU Extension Center.

Research department employees from Oriana House, a private, nonprofit community corrections and substance abuse treatment agency that operates the Cliff Skeen CBCF, have been helping lead classes twice a week on gardening principles. The clients then get to apply what was learned in the classroom by getting their hands dirty and planting tomatoes, celery, kale, cabbage, peppers, onions, potatoes, strawberries and beans, among other summer produce.

In the winter, the ladies will be focusing on indoor gardening, canning preserving and drying seeds.

“Twelve to 18 ladies on average show up each week,” said Andria Blackwood, research specialist at Oriana House. “We’re going to do this all year. They are excited about the whole process. A lot of the clients say it’s very peaceful, that it’s a form of entertainment, and it’s something positive. It also feels empowering for them to learn new things.”

Blackwood said the program has been percolating for several years.

About eight months ago, her predecessor, Dani Jauk, began launching it. Blackwood, who completed a 2014 internship at Oriana House in 2014, began pitching in even before getting hired at the facility.

“I helped as an outsider,” said Blackwood, who recently finished getting her doctorate degree in geography from Kent State University. “I took over for Dani. I’ve been gardening for years, so it was a good fit. Both Dani and I wanted to give clients a different way to interact with each other, learn new skills and build self-esteem. Dani and I both wanted to give them a hobby, and also show them how to eat better and lower their grocery bills.

“This summer, we’re growing Brussel sprouts and a lot of the ladies at the facility have never even had a Brussel sprout. Yesterday, we had a picnic, and they really seem to be into greens.”

One of the topics Blackwood stresses is urban gardening in small spaces.

“You can garden even if you have very little yard space,” she said. “One thing we’re doing is tire gardening. We are growing potatoes that way. We will also be teaching them how to fill in soil to grow tomatoes and greens in a pallet garden.”

On May 30, gardeners who participated in a 12-lesson garden project were recognized at the center where they showed off their thriving garden. Those who participated in at least four sessions received a certificate; those who participated in at least seven lessons were also treated to garden gloves and a grow kit to start their own garden.

Upon their release, all participating clients will have printouts of everything they learned in the program to hopefully continue their new skillset at home.

Meanwhile, the project will be used to contribute to research on the benefits of gardening in correctional facilities, which will be further developed in a partnership with faculty and students from the University of Akron’s sociology department.

“This project has been well received by the ladies and they are very proud of what they are creating,” said Michael Randle, Oriana House vice president of correctional programs in Summit County. “The women are learning skills they can expand upon when they return home, and the benefits are long term.”

Randle added that a key point of the community garden is to show clients how to use their time more productively in the future. As a bonus, it can also involve their children.

Blackwood said the pilot program definitely won’t be the last.

“I really love my job,” she said. “We will be doing this next year as well.”