Potatoes, carrots and tomatoes aren't the only things growing in Prairie View's plot at the Sand Creek Community Gardens in North Newton.
Caley Ortman, a community case manager at the Prairie View office in Newton, has been bringing the children he works with to the garden plot as part of their therapy sessions. He said they learn about planting produce, but they also learn about life and how to grow into better people.
"At the end of the day, it really isn't about gardening itself," Ortman said. "... There's a lot of lessons you can learn from gardening."
Ortman works with youth ages 5 to 20, typically conducting therapy sessions after school on a weekly basis. He serves children with a wide variety of needs, helping them to function successfully in the community. Through the therapy sessions, the children learn socially acceptable behaviors, responsibility, accountability, respect, and development of positive relationships with peers and adults.
Ortman grew up on a farm in South Dakota and has memories of gardening with his parents. He thought a gardening project might be a good therapy method, and Prairie View offered to pay for a 20 ft. by 20 ft. plot at the Sand Creek Community Gardens at Bethel College in North Newton.
Due to patient confidentiality, he usually has to work one-on-one with the children — though occasionally he brings groups to the garden. He doesn't force children to work on the project if they are not interested, but most are receptive to the idea and enjoy watching the garden's progress.
In the garden, students learn how to pick out seeds, nurture and water the growing plants, and then harvest the produce. They have to interact with other gardeners who maintain plots nearby, respect the gardens of others, keep their own space tidy, unplug from the distractions of technology, and focus on a goal.
"A lot of these kids, when you're working with behavioral goals, it's hard stuff to measure," he said. "... One of the beautiful things about gardening is, you're coming to a goal you're going to work towards."
Ortman said some of the children also may not know where food comes from, and the garden is a good way to broaden their experience. It encourages them to eat healthier, too: they are more likely to try produce if they've grown it themselves.
The children are allowed to take home produce from the garden to their families, and this summer an elementary school age group was able to pick vegetables from the garden and make a stew.
"At the end, everything that you grow bears fruit, and there's a lot of pride you can take," Ortman said. "... It's coming from their hard work."