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 Students Grow as Part of Horticulture Program

Students at Girls Rehabilitation Facility in San Diego now have a peaceful place they can go to relax, learn and connect with nature.

A large garden on the campus brings some green to the residential facility and gives the 30 or so teenage girls at the facility a chance to care for a variety of plants.

“We teach the girls gardening from tending seedlings to harvesting vegetables,” said Joni Gabriel, who oversees the horticultural therapy program there. “In the process, they’re developing vocational and life skills.”

The garden area includes a greenhouse, potting tables, raised planter beds, a sink, a picnic table, and composting bins. Students helped to design and build it.

Work began on it last year. Before then, the area was nothing but plain asphalt and was seldom used, said Tyra Myles, supervising probation officer at the facility.

“It’s much more beautiful now,” she said. “When your environment is pleasant and healthy, it makes you feel better.”

The girls in the Girls Rehabilitation Facility attend Sierra Vista School, which is one of the San Diego County Office of Education’s Juvenile Court and Community Schools (JCCS). The facility, which serves girls between the ages of 13 and 17, offers an intensive, highly structured program focused on cognitive restructuring.

The gardening program, called Growing Opportunities, is a cooperative undertaking of the county Probation Department, San Diego County Office of Education, and the University of California Cooperative Extension. The garden was built with support from these partners, as well as the federal Centers for Disease Control, the county Health and Human Services Agency, and individual donations.

The horticultural therapy program benefits the girls there in many different ways, Myles said.

“It’s very multifaceted,” she said. “There’s an educational component; there’s a therapeutic component; there’s a collaborative component.”

While tending to the plants in the garden, the students learn about science, teamwork, empathy and various aspects of gardening.

“The work the girls do in the garden is real and useful, and it transforms them,” Gabriel said. “It inspires positive changes that can improve their mental health, their behavior, and their relationships with themselves and others.”

Many of the girls at the facility have anger issues, and the garden helps them calm down.

“Helping out in the garden helps me release my stress and anger,” a 17-year-old student there said, adding that it sometimes helps her to talk with the plants.

The girls in the program get out to the garden in small groups for a few hours at a time a couple of times a week. While there, they work with Gabriel and master gardeners from the University of California Cooperative Extension. They even learn to make healthy snacks with the food they grow.

The idea for the horticultural therapy program at the facility came from a similar one Myles started at East Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility several years ago. There’s also a garden at Reflections Central School, a JCCS site in La Mesa.

Organizers of the horticultural therapy program hope that the success at these schools can be replicated at other JCCS sites.

Studies have shown that gardening can help people of all ages in a variety of ways, including enhancing cognitive functioning, improving concentration, increasing attention span, boosting self-esteem, and reducing stress.

“Working with plants is a way to health and well-being,” Gabriel said. “People come to the garden and they feel good.”