St. Mark Lutheran Church in Van Wert, Ohio, is digging deep in its community outreach.

The congregation has partnered with the local juvenile court to have junior high and high school students on probation tend the church’s vegetable garden for their community service work.

St. Mark’s community garden, in a lot across the street from the church, had been dormant since the congregation stopped working it about two years ago. Congregation member Kevin Taylor, a judge in Van Wert County Juvenile Court, asked if the young probationers could till the soil, plant vegetables, weed the beds and harvest the small crops as part of their court-ordered community service.

“I went to the church and talked to the staff to see if we could incorporate it into our service work,” said Taylor, who hears around 200 delinquency cases a year. “Most will have community service work, so why not work in the garden?”

The church donates the food from the garden to local pantries. The students, many of whom come from families experiencing poverty, can also take food home. One probation officer said a student had never seen or tasted a cabbage before.

“It’s a delight that students and people who are hungry can benefit,” said William Haggis, pastor of St. Mark. “It’s a win-win in a church that believes God is calling them into this ministry.

“When you think of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20)—along with ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Matthew 22:39)—this was a way for the congregation of St. Mark’s to extend its ministry to youth who need a little help navigating the challenges of life.”

The students are learning skills such as teamwork, empathy, taking instructions and developing patience while waiting for plants to grow, said Nancy Sparks, a probation officer who works with the youth in the garden.

“I had a sixth-grade girl who had drugs at school that were given to her and was on probation,” Sparks said. “She planted 30 sunflower seeds; 29 grew. She was so proud of those that she took her mom to see them. It’s great to see the students taking ownership of the garden.”

A productive relationship

The plants are grown in raised wooden beds, said probation officer Matt Ream, who grew up gardening his family’s vegetables.

The students are on probation, he said, for everything from unruly behavior to domestic violence, drug possession and assault. “It’s a new experience for a lot of these kids, many whom haven’t been in a garden before,” he said. “We teach them what it’s like to tend a garden.”

“It’s a delight that students and people who are hungry can benefit.”

The church’s approval of the program, now in its second year, was “Yes! Right away,” said Randy Thompson, congregation council president. “The fact that the food could be donated to the food pantries was a primary driver. Giving it away is a ministry of this church for the community.

“Since Judge Taylor made the request, we had no concerns or issues. We knew he had the best interests of the church and the kids in mind.”

Ream said the purpose of the garden “isn’t only to raise veggies but to also bestow a good work ethic”—especially for students who haven’t always had the best role models.

About six students at a time work in the garden, with one probation officer, he added.

Having the probation officers manage the program removed much of the work from St. Mark, Thompson said. He advises other churches looking to establish a similar ministry to be sure they have such a support system in place, adding, “It’s a good program, but you need someone to manage it.”

The program was considered a significant success last year, and the group looks forward to working the garden again this season. They’re hoping to extend the beds for more planting space.

“No one got hurt, there were no outbursts and the only vandalism was from a squirrel,” said Sparks, smiling.

The congregation, too, is eagerly anticipating a second planting season with the students, Haggis said. “It’s a wonderful way for students to take pride in what they do,” he said. “We’re looking forward to our second season; we’re excited about that. It’s wonderful that the juvenile probation department wants to continue. It’s a very productive relationship.”

Wendy Healy
Healy is a freelance writer and member of Trinity Lutheran Church, Brewster, N.Y. She served as communications director for Lutheran Disaster Response of New York following the 9/11 attacks.

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