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Northland Family Help Center: Youth Shelter Garden

Youth Shelter Garden The educational program at Northland Family Help Center’s (NFHC) Youth Shelter Garden in Flagstaff, Arizona provides youth in transition an opportunity to find roots and connect with their environment.  “Our garden increases opportunity for engagement and makes it much easier for youth to ground themselves, learn about our environment, and interact positively with staff and peers,” shares Runaway and Homeless Youth Outreach Coordinator James Kennedy.  “Every small interaction, every hand holding a young transplant in fresh soil, every sprouted seed and fresh raspberry all increase the connection of our youths to the world around them, a vital component of building the resiliency and connectedness of youth in the youth shelter.” An inspirational program, the garden received a 2019 Gro More Good Grassroots Grant to help them expand their existing garden space with new plants, tools, soil amendments and fruit trees.

A state licensed emergency facility, the shelter provides a temporary home for youth ages birth to 18 years of age who have been removed from unsafe living situations, are runaway homeless youth, or are youth with juvenile justice system involvement that do not have a safe home environment to return to after detention.  Youth can stay a few days to a few months before they are placed in more permanent situations. While in residence, youth continue to attend school and then they are also given opportunities to engage in additional life skills education afterschool and in the evening.  The shelter established a garden program to provide an engaging way to teach youth about growing food and caring for plants along with healthy eating habits and how to cook with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Youth Shelter Garden
The gardens and playground at Northland Family Help Center's Youth Shelter Garden.

James explains that “almost all our youth have participated in the garden project. However, garden group time is never a requirement for our youth. This allows all the youth to interact with the garden on their own terms, which has led to a number of extremely diverse interactions with the garden project.” He shares examples of how youth from Native American origins share stories about the importance of planting corn and the spiritual value of tending and caring for land in their culture with staff and peers. “Youth also pick lavender to make their rooms smell nice or harvest mint to make tea. Many of the younger clients enjoy catching grasshoppers, watching ants, or looking at the night crawlers (earthworms) that come to the surface of the garden soil to eat in the dark.”  He adds that “’What’s that’ is a refrain constantly on repeat in the garden, as youth move from grape vines (‘THAT’S where grapes come from??’) to walking onions (‘Whaddya mean they walk??’) and mint (‘THAT SMELLS SO GOOD’).”

Gardening in Arizona is not always an easy endeavor, so utilizing proper plant selection, bed management systems and other water conservation practices are key to the garden success.  “Northland Family Help Center’s Youth Shelter Garden is in our third year of a permaculture/hugekultur raised garden bed system,” details Executive Director Aileen Fitz.  “We collect rainwater runoff and utilize compost to amend two raised beds and a sunken bed. Living in Arizona is a dry experience. To grow food to eat one has to focus on water. Water is expensive in Arizona so using conservative gardening practices is very important and sustainable.”  Through the garden, youth have the opportunity to learn how to grow food in the unique ecosystem of the high desert.  The garden focuses on using “hardy perennials, plants that will survive and thrive in our harsh high-desert environment while requiring the least amount of annual work and self-renewing annuals that can self-sow, are able to be replanted or split, or plants we can save seeds from for the next year, avoiding repeated purchases.

From learning how to care for themselves to learning how to conserve natural resources in their environment, as James points out the “learning opportunities for youth are always endless. These are all skills the youth can take back to their families and carry through life.”