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"Keep up the great work, Noyo Food Forest! Long live the Learning Garden, Susan"
The first time Justin (above, l.) came to The Learning Garden with his Mom, Ellie, and his sister, Nattie, he didn't say a word. When anyone said hello, he nodded, looking downward.
Nattie was applying for a summer internship before starting community college. When she and her autistic younger brother Justin both became interns, big changes resulted. The family's eating habits changed—a big deal for any family—and Justin's life was transformed in unexpected ways.
Interns learn to grow, harvest, and sell produce. Nattie loves to cook and started taking all kinds of produce home to cook. Justin noticed, and Ellie responded to Justin's interest by volunteering at the Food Forest. And bringing Justin along.
At 15 Justin was beginning high school with poor communication abilities, few other skills, and no self-confidence. Justin was quiet as normal at the garden, but peacefully relaxed in the natural environment. He soon became interested in how the veggies Nattie was taking home were grown and harvested. He began volunteering to harvest when he visited with his mother. His comfort in the garden grew thanks to these regular visits. And he asked to become an intern, like his sister.
Attending the program was a major accomplishment for Justin. He was challenged with new information and new activities to master. He recognized his own progress, saying of a favorite bloom, "I am flowering too."
But one challenge seemed too big for him. He didn't talk to strangers; he seldom talked at all. So at the Farmers Market he kept things orderly, but did not interact with customers.
The Food Forest's grant-funded programs are introductions, and students who stay involved longer reap much greater benefits. At the end of Justin's four-week session, caring donors sponsored him as a special needs student for the 12-week after-school session.
With his sister no longer at the garden, Justin began taking home produce himself. He surprised the family by cooking. Then one day at the Farmers Market, a customer asked another intern "Are these purple beans going to turn green when I cook them?" The intern didn't know. But Justin jumped up from the back of the booth, "Yes!" he said. "Yes, they will"
He told me later "I knew the answer, so I had to tell him." And when the customer asked how Justin cooked them, they went on to talk about cooking the beans.
Justin was amazed at himself. Over time, he developed rapport with regular customers, befriended other vendors, and learned their names. A whole new world of capability and interaction opened up for him. Today, Justin is enjoying high school. Many challenges remain but he has future opportunities no one had imagined.
Dinner hour at home has changed too. In the past, the path from freezer to microwave was well worn. Today direct paths run from the Farmers Market and the garden, where Ellie and Justin still volunteer, to their kitchen, where Mom, Dad, Nattie, and Justin, all take turns cooking fresh and wholesome dinners for the family.
Justin is one of dozens of teens who've acquired self-confidence and new skills working in the natural environment of The Learning Garden. Teens learn to acquire and perform a job, and to balance home, school, and work responsibilities. They learn gardening skills and practical skills; they gain confidence, and insight into future opportunities. They do this while giving back to the community growing fresh vegetables for the school cafeterias, social services, the Farmers Market and other outlets.