'Thriving and learning something new': Youth detention center's aquaponics and gardening program a success

·4 min read

Oct. 16—Anna Verhoeff said her approach to teaching aquaponics and gardening is to tell her students what she wants to see and then let them figure out how to do it.

"Sometimes, I even let them do something when I know it won't work," she said. "That's how we learn. It's one thing for your teacher or your mother to tell you something. But when you find it out for yourself, that's when the lesson really sticks."

Verhoeff is a juvenile corrections officer at the Elbert Shaw Regional Youth Detention Center in Dalton. Operated by the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, the center houses youth from across the state. Formerly the Dalton Regional Youth Detention Center, the center was named in honor of Elbert Shaw, who volunteered at the center for some 40 years, in 2007. Shaw passed away in 2013.

As part of her duties, Verhoeff directs the center's aquaponics and gardening program. Aquaponics is a form of agriculture in which fish waste provides fertilizer for the plants.

Two years ago, Verhoeff, then the coordinator of Christian Heritage School's aquaponics program, and her students there helped set up the center's aquaponics program.

"My class came out here and designed and built the system," she said.

Verhoeff directed the school's aquaponics program for five years.

"The school was looking to start an aquaponics and gardening program," she said. "I was a stay-at-home mom at the time, but I had a background in horticulture (the study of plants). I had worked at the Ooltewah Nursery (in Tennessee), and as a volunteer had started a gardening program previously at my children's elementary school. So when I heard about the opportunity, I jumped at the chance. I went to the school and gave them my résumé.

She said officials at the center heard about the program and reached out to Christian Heritage School to help set up a program at the center.

The total cost of the garden was $3,400. A grant from the Georgia Shape Physical Activity and Nutrition Grant Program covered $2,000. Christian Heritage School provided the rest.

Verhoeff said she enjoyed working with the staff and students at the center and felt it was time to move on from Christian Heritage School, so when a position opened up at the center last year she applied and was accepted into the six-week training program in Forsyth for a juvenile corrections officer.

"It was the best thing I could have done," she said. "I enjoy working with the kids. They love working in the garden. At Christian Heritage, if we had kids that were maybe acting up in the classroom, I'd say 'Send them to me.' They are the ones who need that physical outlet. Working in the garden engages the mind and the body."

Verhoeff said working in the garden at the center is a privilege earned by good behavior.

"They care for the plants and the fish," she said. "They weed the garden. They help repair and build things."

Among the plants they have grown are strawberries, carrots, tomatoes, okra, squash, zucchini, watermelons, broccoli, cauliflower, collard greens and lettuce.

"Anything they don't eat when they are picking it goes to the kitchen and is served to the students," she said. "They found out the okra is really good when it's raw, when it's little, so they've been eating it."

Verhoeff said they currently use koi and goldfish in the aquaponics garden because they are hardy fish, resilient to disease and able to stand a wide range of acidity in the water.

But she said as the program continues and the young people get more experience working with fish, she hopes to introduce crappies and other edible fish.

"That way they are producing both protein and vegetables we can use in the kitchen," she said.

Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Tyrone Oliver said having the aquaponics and gardening program "has meant a lot to" the center.

"The kids are thriving and learning something new," he said. "It's helping them on a behavioral level. We've seen instances of misbehavior drop because they know it can keep them from being able to go out there. And they are acquiring skills they can take with them when they leave here. We hope they will use those skills to grow things for their families and their communities. Perhaps they can even become some of our future farmers."

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