Youth detention center aquaponics and gardening program a success
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 find 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 something your teacher or your mother tells you. But when you find out for yourself, that’s where the lesson really stands.”
Verhoeff is a juvenile correctional officer at the Elbert Shaw Regional Youth Detention Center in Dalton. Managed by the Georgian Department of Juvenile Justice, the center accommodates young people from all over the state. Formerly the Dalton Regional Youth Detention Center, the center was named after Elbert Shaw, who volunteered at the center for approximately 40 years, in 2007. Shaw passed away in 2013.
As part of his role, Verhoeff runs the centre’s aquaponics and gardening program. Aquaponics is a form of agriculture in which fish waste provides fertilizer for plants.
Two years ago, Verhoeff, then coordinator of the Christian Heritage School’s aquaponics program, and her students helped set up the centre’s aquaponics program.
“My class came here and designed and built the system,” she said.
Verhoeff ran 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 (Tennessee) and, as a volunteer, I had already started a gardening program in my children’s elementary school. So when I heard about the opportunity, I jumped at the chance. I went to school and gave them my curriculum vitae.
She said center officials heard about the program and contacted Christian Heritage School to help set up a program at the center.
Verhoeff said she enjoyed working with the staff and students at the center and felt it was time to leave Christian Heritage School. So when a position opened at the center last year, she applied and was accepted into the six-week training program at Forsyth for a juvenile correctional officer.
“It was the best thing I could have done,” she said. “I love working with children. They love to work in the garden. At Christian Heritage, if we had kids maybe having fun in class, I would say ‘Send them to me’. They’re the ones who are having fun in class. need this physical outlet.Working in the garden engages the mind and body.
Verhoeff said working in the center garden is a privilege earned by good behavior.
“They take care of the plants and the fish,” she said. “They weed the garden. They help fix and build things.”
Some of the plants they have grown include strawberries, carrots, tomatoes, okra, squash, zucchini, watermelon, broccoli, cauliflower, collard greens and lettuce.
“Anything that they don’t eat when they pick it goes to the kitchen and is served to the students,” she said. “They found out that okra is really good when it’s raw, when it’s small, so they ate it.”
Verhoeff said they are currently using koi carp and goldfish in the aquaponics garden because they are hardy fish, resistant to disease and able to withstand a wide range of acidity in the water.
But she said as the program continues and the young people gain more experience working with fish, she hopes to introduce crappies and other edible fish.
“That way they produce both protein and vegetables that we can use in cooking,” she said.
Juvenile Justice Commissioner Tyrone Oliver said the aquaponics and gardening program “meant a lot to” the center.
“Children thrive and learn something new,” he said. “It helps them behaviorally. We’ve seen misbehavior decrease because they know it can keep them from going out. And they’re learning skills that they can take with them when they leave here. “We hope they will use these skills to grow things for their families and communities. Maybe they can even become some of our future farmers.”