Challenge Academy is a program of the division of the Solano County Probation Department with the goal and mission of providing a short-term residential program that encourages youth to create individual change in an effort to maximize their potential for personal growth, maturity and development.
The Challenge Academy garden, or Changewood, was solely installed by Challenge Academy students during the pandemic. To support and engage the students, Sustainable Solano and certified horticulturist Scott Dodson held virtual meetings with the students. These meetings were scheduled for Saturday morning and were held for about a month and a half. Topics for these meetings included talks and presentations on permaculture, horticulture and garden design. After the meetings the students were tasked with researching plants, and creating a mock-up garden design. The designs and plant list were then used as the basis for the final garden design. When students were ready to begin the hands-on installation, tools and plants were delivered.
During the weekly meetings, students updated the program manager and garden designer about the garden progress. They asked questions and shared any discoveries. To diversify their learning experience, we supplemented the lessons by including guest speaker Chanowk Yisrael, from Yisrael Family Urban Farm. During both his virtual guest visits, Chanowk relayed his experiences as an urban farmer with the youth and used their virtual time together as an opportunity to share the lessons that nature has to offer when you take the time to listen.
Over the next five years this garden will create at least 101 pounds of food, which is about 84 meals.
Results and Impact
Through this garden installation, the youth at Challenge Academy have learned about plants, their function and their environmental benefit. Produce grown at this garden will be donated to local community partners feeding the community. For Challenge Academy students, this will be a way of giving back to the community. When it’s safe to interact with the students, we will explore the possibility of having a hands-on cooking class at the Challenge Academy facility. We are hoping that this cooking class will use some of the produce grown at the garden.
While gardening was new to most of the student participants, there was one student whose family gardened at home, and who had learned about plants from his mom. Due to this, he naturally took a leadership role in the project and helped the other students when questions arose.
We did our best to engage, educate and facilitate the garden project. However, nothing is able to replace the experience of being in person. Virtual meetings became routine, which made it less exciting for the students. While we tried to adapt by bringing in a guest speaker, it was still difficult to ensure that the students participated in every meeting and were engaged. Additionally, because we were not able to be there during the planting process, sometimes mistakes were made and questions went unanswered. This was a lost learning opportunity for both the students and ourselves.
Even with the challenges of virtual learning and engagement, this was such a worthwhile project. Moving forward, we would like to find more resources for this garden, especially around the topic of composting since they were interested in learning more about it.