Ruth’s Roots Rehabilitation
Juvenile Offenders Grow a Community Garden
Story by Leah Barbou • Pictures by Kevin Hudson
Before she became the Hancock County Youth Court judge, Elise Deano was a school teacher. She jokes that she became a lawyer because she taught school, but Deano wants to make sure young people get an opportunity to turn their lives around.
In spring 2016, she opened Ruth’s Roots in the lot adjacent to the Hancock County Youth Court. The farm-to-table agricultural operation, now blooming as a true community partnership, is run by nonviolent juveniles in the drug court program. Deano, along with the children’s attorneys and the rest of the court team, come together twice a month for garden workdays, and she says it’s making a difference.
“If you just sit on the bench, and you hear about what they’ve done wrong—they’ve failed the drug screen or they stole something or whatever—you miss who and what they are,” she explains. “In my opinion, getting to know them through the garden has allowed me to fashion better sanctions and better rewards. It is helping them, and it is helping me be more effective for them and get them on the right road.
“The possibilities here are endless.”
Planting the Seed
Deano read about a farm-to-table community garden program in California for nonviolent juveniles, and she immediately concluded that introducing such a program in Bay Saint Louis would be beneficial to some of the young people who appear before her.
The name of the garden honors the late wife of the lot owner, Jim Thompson. Hurricane Katrina leveled their family's business, Ruth’s Cakery, in 2005, and when Deano approached him with her idea, he generously donated the use of the land.
Although Deano thought growing a community garden would benefit young people in her drug court rehabilitation program, she has what she calls “the opposite of a green thumb, whatever that is.”
Deano knew the Mississippi State University Extension Service could deliver agricultural advice because of her mother’s career as a Pearl River County assistant home demonstration agent. However, she didn’t know her local Hancock County agent, Christian Stephenson.
“I was given his name, and someone said, ‘Elise, he’s fabulous!’ And I think I’d read an article about another community garden that he works,” Deano says. “So I reached out to him.
“Now, I call him for everything,” she continues. “He comes out and works with the kids. He set up all the irrigation. He’s the one who told us where to get the salad tables. He built these beds, and it all looks great. It’s exciting!”
Stephenson took the opportunity to get involved with Ruth’s Roots, and he’s quick to say this is only the beginning.
“I’m expecting this spring is going to be the first good season for producing vegetables and getting a lot of products out of this garden,” he says.
Along with four raised beds, the garden features 24 salad tables, which are elevated beds that don’t require bending down to weed, water, or harvest. Deano donated a tung nut tree in honor of her father, who formerly edited the Tung Oil News. Along with fig trees, young people are growing corn, eggplant, peppers, squash, tomatoes, okra, and watermelon. In addition to all the plants, Ruth’s Roots has egg-laying chickens, honey bees, and pet rabbits.
The young people painted pictures of themselves on the fence, and the teens most interested in art helped decorate the garden. Sculptures of a dragon and an alligator, as well as statues of St. Mary and St. Francis, add to the open, relaxed environment.
“You see these kids getting excited because they’ve never been picked for anything, and they’ve never been ‘those kids.’ So now, someone’s finally recognizing their talents and saying, ‘Run with this. I’m trusting you to run with this and make it happen,’” Deano explains. “These kids are like, ‘I want to be doing stuff in the garden. When’s your next garden day? I want to come out there and do stuff with you!’”
Deano emphasizes that the entire Bay Saint Louis community has come together in support of Ruth’s Roots.
“It was amazing,” she says. “Normally, when you say, ‘I want to do this,’ you have to reach out and beg all these people to help you, but with this garden, it was like the heavens opened up and people were calling me asking, ‘Can I donate this?’”
An anonymous benefactor recently donated $10,000 to enhance Ruth’s Roots, and Deano envisions a community greenhouse that allows everyone, not just the teens in her court, to get some gardening experience.
Also, teachers are contacting Deano to bring their classes to the garden. As a former teacher, Deano has a variety of age-appropriate books about bees, chickens, and other garden-related topics. Teachers simply check books out from Deano, go over the materials in class, and return the books when they visit the garden.
“In addition to making the garden productive and making it valuable in terms of the plants that we’re taking out of it, we also want to make it part of the community,” Stephenson says. “People keep coming in. They’ll come in, walk around, see the plants, look at the dragon, and look at the alligator. They look at the chickens, and we have more people petting rabbits that you know what to do with.
“The great thing about this is that, because it’s an area where there’s a lot of foot traffic, there’s a lot of people walking by. It’s great because people can actually see what’s going on,” he continues.
Deano agrees and recommends other communities consider using Extension assistance to open community gardens and engage young people.
“Until I started working with Extension, I didn’t realize what awesome programs it has for kids; it’s phenomenal,” she asserts. “Christian tells me what grows and what doesn’t grow. He tells me when to plant stuff. I mean, I guess I could research it, but why research when I can call Christian?
“The kids are proud of this, and I want everyone to be able to learn how to do this because it’s all for our kids."