Shannon Thompson is relatively new to gardening, but she's seen the benefits of gardening first hand. She's Executive Director of Youthlinks, a non-profit organization in Rockland, Maine, that provides community service learning and enrichment programs for adolescents. One of the programs that Youthlinks has been fostering is the community gardening program. Kids participate in 6-week-long sessions planting, weeding, and harvesting the garden. Some kids stay for only 1 session, while others work in the garden and greenhouse year round. Each year the program donates more than 2000 pounds of produce to homeless shelters and soup kitchens in the area.
The program teaches more than how to grow vegetables. The kids -- mostly 11- to 15-year-olds -- learn about cooking, nutrition, and environmental education. They also develop many social skills while in the garden. "Our programs are all process oriented," says Shannon. "The garden allows kids who have fallen through the cracks of the educational system an opportunity to build self-confidence and communication skills, and make a connection to their community," she adds.
Gardens have a way of transforming kids. Stephanie, for example, was a 14-year-old with severe social anxiety disorder. "The first time Stephanie came to the gardening class she couldn't stay longer than 2 hours because she was too anxious being around the other kids," says Shannon. "Two years later I saw her in the garden teaching new kids how to plant seeds. She'd become a leader." Another child, Shawna, was 15 when she first visited the garden at Youthlinks. She refused to eat vegetables until one day Shannon gave her some freshly dug carrots to taste. "She was amazed at the flavor and took the whole bag of carrots home. Now she's a cook," says Shannon. "I can't help but think the garden influenced her career choice."
One of the beauties of using a garden to teach kids is the many connections you can make with larger social issues. Hunger is always a relevant topic. "Some kids come to us and have no clue about hunger issues in their community, while others have personally gone to food banks to get food," says Shannon. Youthlinks encourages kids to come up with their own ideas for programs. A few years ago a group of kids decided to start a garden at the local food shelter. They would go and help prepare, plant, and raise the food. "It made the hunger issue and connection with a garden come alive," says Shannon.
Personally, Shannon has been so inspired by the garden at Youthlinks, that she has started her own garden at home. "I grow flowers and vegetables, but mostly I garden for the therapeutic benefits," she says. "I meet many great people in my garden. It makes the neighbors happy and me happy," Shannon says. "What better reason to have your own garden."