Our long wait for the 200sf community garden plot is over! Late last week the letter finally arrived and with my number in hand, I called the volunteer Garden Manager. On Saturday, two foster girls and I dashed over to check the place out. We were excited to see we’d been given a plot near the street.
Two of my most frequent foster visitors were thrilled to be given the chance to make something of this space. They spent hours working on the walkway from the front gate to the other plots and they weeded too. I was completely shocked to be honest. This kind of freedom and space and ownership was something they leapt at in a way I’d never imagined.
Many of the kids we care for are often very isolated in almost every area of their lives. Often they are in special classes and are separated from other kids and family members, sometimes they are even in special separate schools, but most of all, they are isolated by an extreme lack of financial resources and family support. They often feel so left out of everything they develop fantasies about what their life should be like, and sometimes they just lie about it. Why shouldn’t they? When you’re an innocent child who is a victim of the circumstances typically brought about as a result of the choices made by the adults who should love you the most, being punished for lying is not even a blip on your radar.
Over time, I’ve noticed that many of them get anxious about all of this isolation and they turn to keeping their hands busy in order to keep the sad thoughts at bay. Sometimes busy hands can do good or beautiful things, but if you are isolated and have limited resources, busy hands can lead to trouble. I cannot tell you how often I have to pick up tiny random scraps of paper from kids who just rip things up because of their anxiousness.
Punishing these kids for lying or stealing just doesn’t work. Reversing the effects of their isolated feelings, teaching them coping skills, and helping them to understand that they are not alone DOES.
Saturday I had no idea what would happen, and overall, I was completely shocked. I have never seen the kids so calm and focused. They politely asked dog walkers who walked past the fence if they could pet their dogs, they bickered less and worked together more, but most of all, they worked really hard, asking tons of questions, and they were so positive about the rewards to come later in the summer.
In addition, the fact that the garden was not on our property, but instead, is part of a network in the community, made a difference that I’d never thought about before. When they discovered there are other troubled and at-risk youth all over the country in big cities participating in similar activities in similar environments, I think for the first time I witnessed both kids reflecting that they belonged to something bigger and better than their problems. That day what calmed them was a sense of pride that they so rarely are able to feel and that so many of us take for granted. They also realized that they now belonged to a great group, a group that can feed people, and that made them feel good—really good.
This success led them to the huge reward of dining out. Negotiating that often problematic situation led to another reward, so we drove up to a viewpoint and watched the city and identified mountains. Since I was so happy, and they continued to behave so well, they reached what I now call the ultimate level. Before returning home, we visited a Gelateria and they interacted with the strange setting with far more confidence than I’d ever seen before and they were so much more content and calm. I was so proud of them and I let them know that—repeatedly.
If you have any access to a community garden, I encourage you to participate in any program that helps troubled kids learn a skill that they can take with them for the rest of their lives. After only one day, I can tell you, you might just be blown away by the results. I know I was. It was a day I will never forget.