Sixteen-year-old Darius plucked a handful of vegetables from their vines as he carefully walked through the small garden area that sets on the grounds of the Logansport Juvenile Correctional Facility.
Just a patch of grass a little over two years ago, the garden now houses over 200 different kinds of plants — including tomatoes, watermelon, zucchini, peppers and a variety of flowers.
The garden also allows students at the facility, like Darius, to discover their green thumbs.
It's called the Insight Garden Program — or IGP — and its mission is to "provide environmental education curriculum, combined with vocational gardening and landscaping training," to those who are currently incarcerated.
The program began in 2002 in California under the leadership of founder and executive director Beth Waitkus. With an emphasis on personal transformation, the program is separated into four sections — also known as arcs — each focusing on a different concept. People must apply for entrance into the program, and it's always been pretty popular, Waitkus said.
Mostly found in adult institutions, LJCF was the first juvenile facility to have the IGP, and it was also the first institution to house the program outside of California.
Last Tuesday, Waitkus paid LJCF a visit and said that the facility's garden is one of the most beautiful ones in the entire program.
"This place is very near and dear to my heart because of the people that work here," she said, "just the way the whole institution has embraced the program. I mean, a couple years ago, this was nothing but grass."
Because LJCF students are often incarcerated for a shorter period of time, Waitkus said the IGP program is designed differently there than it is in adult institutions. Where adult inmates might spend an entire year studying the different arcs, the juveniles only spend about six months at a time in the IGP, Waitkus said.
"They do two classes a week, and it's a very robust program," she said. "IGP covers environmental literacy, permaculture gardening, inner-gardening and life skills and then skills for community re-entry. What we're really looking for here is to shift world views and shift the thinking of what rehabilitation can look like."
LJCF's community involvement coordinator, Shannon Hiles, has been involved with the IGP since it began in Logansport in 2016, and she said it's one of her favorite programs at the facility.
"We are very blessed," Hiles said. "A lot of the students that are here, they live in inner cities and don't necessarily have access to fresh produce, so they're learning all about that. And it also just relaxes them. It takes them out of the prison environment they're in right now and gives them a tool for when they leave here."
And even though the IGP is housed at the facility's campus, Hiles was quick to point out that it really is a community program, with donations of plants and building supplies from places like Cole Hardwood, Home Depot, D&R Fruit Market, Spring Creek, Purdue Extension and the Elks Lodge in Rochester.
There's even a mulch and compost pile on the facility's property that the students are able to use for the garden, Hiles said.
The best part, Hiles said, is that most of the vegetables are donated to the Emmaus Mission Center's food pantry. She believes that the facility has already sent roughly 100 pounds of vegetables to the food pantry this year alone.
Coleman Cogswell — better known as C.C. — has been a facilitator with LJCF's gardening program since its inception, and he said that he has noticed changes in the attitudes and behaviors of the students as they go through the IGP.
"One of the biggest things I see as the boys go through the program is calmness," he said. "You always get from these kids how many troubles they have in their lives, and this is a time where they can just release all that and just be one with nature."
"Overall, it's just a great experience. And one of the best pluses is that they can take something like this back to their own neighborhoods once they get out. Whether those places are crowded or not, they can all find their own little spots and have something that they can call their own garden."
Reach Kim Dunlap at email@example.com or 574-732-5150.