(HARRISONVILLE, Mo.) Two years ago, Marcy Weber had lost custody of her children, was homeless, unemployed and in trouble with the law because of a drinking and drug problem that began at age 10.
Today, she and her children live in a home she bought. She owns a car, works full-time, is drug- and alcohol-free, and has hope, thanks in part to the cooperative efforts of University of Missouri Extension and the court-mandated Cass County Drug Court and County Psychological Services.
Weber is "paying it forward" for mistakes she hopes are long behind her. Part of the "Pay It Forward" project involved fundraising for a community demonstration garden tended to by participants in the two county programs under the direction of the MU Extension Cass County Master Gardeners.
Weber gathered donations of seeds, fertilizer, plants and cash for the garden. Six raised beds, constructed alongside the extension building, provide fresh, locally grown produce for participants who often live in buildings that don't have room for gardens. The gardens are used to teach horticulture, nutrition, cooking and food preservation.
More importantly, participants learn teamwork and responsibility, said Weber and Master Gardener Darra Simpson. They learn that plans sometimes fail, such as when an untimely spring freeze killed their plants. The freeze reminded them that you start over again and do the best you can next time. "They are realizing the magic of gardening" and how it relates to life, Simpson said.
"Drug Court and the garden have helped us develop new friends and a good, new support system," Weber said. Additionally, extension offers her access to community resources to get her back on solid ground.
Shannon Hiser, clinic director at Cass County Psychological Services, said the program helps participants improve self-esteem. "I see excitement and joy after they get to participate in the garden," she said.
Volunteers tend the garden, which contains vegetables, fruit and herbs. They can take produce for family meals or use it in Cooking Matters classes taught by extension nutrition specialist Susan Mills-Gray. The free six-week cooking class focuses on basic techniques and shopping with health and budget in mind.
A meal is prepared weekly in class and participants receive ingredients for the dish to take home, in addition to other cooking supplies.
Mills-Gray said participants learn "basic life skills" that many people take for granted. Changes don't come quickly or easily for those who may have made a lifetime of poor choices, often modeled after behavior of friends and family. "Small victories equal long-term success," Mills-Gray said.
David Hoffman, extension county program director, said participants gain confidence while gardening and are less likely to return to a life of drugs and alcohol. "The drug court has a strong history of people who have completed the program becoming productive," he said. Numerous agencies reach out to help participants make a fresh start. "As one participant told me, 'Most people don't invest in us,'" Hoffman said. But that is no longer true. "We make a huge impact."
Jimmy Odom, Cass County associate commissioner, said the county supports the garden because of the positive impact it has made in the community. "I was glad that we have a part in helping change lives," he said.
Sponsors of the garden include the drug court, psychological services, City of Harrisonville, Cass County Soil and Water District, Lincoln University Extension's Small Farm Outreach Program, Master Gardeners and the Steve Orr Memorial.
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