As her hands searched in the damp dirt for weeds to pull, Ericka Thomas said this was the first time she had gardened since she visited her grandmother as a child.
This time, instead of her grandmother, it was Thomas’ drug court judge, Joseph Locascio, who was telling her which weeds to dig out.
On Saturday, Thomas is among the volunteers who have been in the city’s drug, mental health and veterans’ treatment courts and now are working at a community garden in Kansas City.
The garden, started by the Kansas City Municipal Court last year, was so popular that this year it has doubled in size to a 40-by-50-foot plot, deputy court administrator Stephanie Boyer said.
“Many participants reflect back to childhood here, back to gardening with their parents or grandparents,” Boyer said at the garden on Saturday. “For the judge and us as a staff, this is a time to work alongside them, and it helps our relationship.”
The idea came from a desire to offer court participants a therapeutic, healthy activity, said drug court judge Locascio, who is also the presiding judge of the municipal court.
Some of the participants have been sanctioned to garden. It is meant as a gentle redirection if they are late for curfew or miss a meeting, Locascio said.
“A sanction to garden is considered a light sanction,” Locascio said. “We have a range of sanctions, jail time being one end of the spectrum, so that we can direct bad behavior toward recovery. It’s not unlike parenting, really.”
More of the gardeners volunteer to be there while going through their court program.
“Many who go through our courts have experienced trauma in life and are looking to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope,” Locascio said. “Things like gardening are a different way to escape. There’s something inherently good about getting back to your roots, if you pardon the pun.”
On any Saturday, up to a half-dozen people are working in the garden.
Kristian Price, who had been through the veterans’ treatment court, said he heard about the garden from his neighbors and realized he could get involved through his court program.
“This gives a different presence for us, because this used to be vacant lots where people dumped trash,” said Price, who lives near the community garden. “My brother has a garden, too. I can assist him with what I learn here, and what I learn from him I can take here.”
Located in Freeway Gardens, a part of Kansas City Community Gardens, the two court plots are growing tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, cucumbers, basil, lettuce and other vegetables this year.
“At harvest time, they get to take home the crops they’ve been working on all summer,” Locascio said. “To see the look on their face that they’ve produced this and now they get to eat it, that’s incredible. It’s a simple and powerful way to feel alive and happy.”
Similar community gardens have taken root throughout the state in juvenile courts and domestic violence shelters, said Donald Frisch, coordinator of therapeutic horticulture at Missouri Botanical Garden.
“The sense of responsibility that develops when taking care of plants is important in many therapy goals,” Frisch said. “It’s a stress reliever, and learning the new skill boosts confidence.”
Nancy Leazer, president of Friends of the Kansas City Problem-Solving Courts, said community gardens have become a common practice in corrections. The Friends nonprofit was created to support the city’s drug, mental health and veterans’ treatment courts, and it rents the two plots of the garden for $25 each, she said.
Leazer said she worked at the Municipal Correctional Institution, which closed in 2009 and where inmates had a similar garden program.
“It was a profound experience to see how much it gave to them,” Leazer said. “Gardening teaches healthy habits. It’s something they can take with them, and even pass down to their families.”
Thomas and Price both said they want to continue volunteering at the garden this summer. They said they were especially excited to make fried green tomatoes when harvest time comes.
“Gardening again is a new experience in this stage of my life, but that makes sense, because I’m leaving behind what I used to be,” Thomas said. “I think next week I’ll bring my grandbaby to the garden, too.”
To reach Caroline Bauman, call 816-234-4449 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.