Albertville, AL (November 27, 2018) -- As the vegetables, fruit, berries and muscadines at Albertville Community Garden succumb to frost, the youth who prune, mulch and fertilize the grounds continue to blossom. Like those who planted the downtown plot’s first seeds in 2015, the 15-17- year-olds maintaining the garden this autumn are participants in Marshall County Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc., a successful, cost-effective alternative to youth incarceration and out-of-home residential placement. A non-profit organization, YAP operates throughout Alabama and 22 other states (including the District of Columbia) with plans to expand.
Juvenile and family court judges, child welfare authorities and other public systems professionals refer individuals to YAP’s community-based programs. YAP partners with individuals and families, matching them with neighborhood-based mentor-Advocates. The YAP Advocates help individuals identify and nurture their gifts and talents and empower them with tools to help them succeed. At the same time, YAP family Advocates connect parents and guardians with resources to reinforce the entire family’s foundation.
For the fifth year, the Albertville Community Garden has proven to be an abundantly fruitful tool, helping youth complete their community service obligations and providing paying jobs through YAP’s Supported Work program.
“Experiences provided to our youth through the garden are consistent with our belief that every individual possesses strengths, potential, interests and talents that make them unique and can be built upon and shared,” said Marshall County YAP Program Director Vanessa Vandergriff, whose team works with 15-20 youth per year to provide community service or paid work opportunities at the garden.
YAP youth plant tomatoes, peppers, onions, greens and other vegetables in the soil and large garden boxes. They plant and pick berries and a variety of native and exotic fruits in the garden’s small orchard and grow myriad flowers in the nursery. The young people prepare fresh produce to take to the Second Chance Food Pantry and deliver fresh flowers to area nursing homes. Visitors to the Albertville Farmer’s Market will see the Albertville Community Garden sign at a table every Thursday, where the youth gain experience selling cut flowers and a few varieties of vegetables and fruits (so as not to compete with local organic farmers). All proceeds return to YAP and what they don’t sell, the young people deliver to hospice patients and take home to share with their own families. Through the garden, YAP youth are actively involved in their community and central to many of the activities that make it special. This year, the garden’s pumpkin patch provided a Halloween harvest for some Albertville kindergarten students and an assortment of cut flowers from the garden provided fresh décor at the Albertville Farm-to-Table dinner on Main Street.
“In addition to giving YAP young people opportunities to see the value of their gifts and talents, the garden enables them to learn skills that can be of value for years to come. They’re learning how to garden and about many aspects of the horticultural business, like how they can produce or supply seed or fertilizer,” said John Penney, a YAP Advocate who worked with local and state officials to create the Marshall County garden five years ago. “At a minimum, the youth see how organic farming can help supplement their income or provide their households with fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Penney, a 67-year-old retired farmer and nursery owner, learned about YAP while working to find resources for homeless youth who sought help through his church. He was so impressed with YAP’s mission and outcomes that he became a part-time Advocate. Penney worked with local justice system and business professionals to start the garden and as a YAP Advocate has seen firsthand the growth that takes place with youth who have benefitted from it.
“Randomly, kids who were once in our program will drive by and say to us, ‘I just wanted to come by to see how big the blueberry bushes are now,’” Penney said. “A few months ago, a young man who once upon a time resisted everything about the garden came by with his girlfriend to show her the garden and tell her what he learned from it when he was in the YAP program. He now has a great job and he and his father bought a fixer upper. I’m not sure how serious he and the young lady are, but I do know he’s off to a wonderful start to his adult life.”