Publications / Schumacher Center Lecture

Gardens That Build Hope and Healing

Introduction by Susan Witt

Cathrine Sneed was laying in a hospital bed when she began envisioning a prison garden. To plant and tend and harvest—that was just what the men in her care at the San Francisco county jail needed to give them hope, confidence in their own skills, and courage to face the outside world again. When the sheriff who had hired her at the jail stopped by to see her, she shared her vision with him. Worried she was dying, he made a bargain with her: If she recovered, she could have her garden. She did.

I have heard of the Garden Project before I visited Cathrine in San Francisco. In my imagination it was a kitchen garden—herbs and tomatoes to add to the lunch table. What I saw was a production garden, rows of healthy vegetables extending down the long rosemary-lined field, with the prison building visible in the distance. Enough food to supply the prison building visible in the distance. Enough food to supply the prison kitchen and still have a quantity left over for market. The Garden Project has since grown to include community gardens, where released prisoners can train neighborhood residents in the skills of growing their own food, and restoration of forest land that was cleared for installation of power lines.

Cathrine Sneed has emerged as an inspiring and effective ambassador to other regions where there is concern about providing healthy food for inner-city neighborhoods and providing healthy food for inner-city neighborhoods and retraining young men and women from those neighborhoods who are in prison.

The Garden Project has been featured in The New York Times, The Economist, The Chicago Tribute, the Los Angeles Times, US News and World Report, and The San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications, as well as on the Lifetime Channel and A&E Channel’s “Uncommon Americans.”

Please welcome a woman who has devoted her life to giving countless people who had lost hope the tools to turn their lives around—Cathrine Sneed.

I am glad to be here with you. I’m always happy to talk about what The Garden Project is doing because I’m very proud of it, and I am also excited to be able to say that what we’re doing is working. So many times in our lives we feel that things aren’t working, we feel that things are broken. Our program is dealing with this situation by helping those who feel they have nothing, who have no hope, to be proud of the broccoli they planted, the native plants they planted. By growing plants they’re growing themselves, and I feel like shouting: “It’s working! It’s working! I know it’s working! If you take care of growing things, they flourish.” I won’t shout, but I will say emphatically that I’ll do whatever it takes to get the message through to the people who in some cases can’t hear any more because they are broken, who can’t see another thing because they’ve been through so much that they don’t want to see. But working in a garden changes that, working in a garden teaches them things they didn’t know they were capable of learning. People we work with say: “You know what? I can learn something. All the teachers who told me I couldn’t learn were wrong. I can learn this. I am learning this. I’m doing this.” And so part of what we do every day is to give people the tools they need to change their lives.

They learn that the seeds they plant will grow if they’re cared for. Seeds have the capacity to grow when conditions are right for their growth, and some seeds have the capacity to wait until those conditions are right, to wait until what they need comes to them, and then they grow. To be able to use the metaphors that gardening provides has made my life and my work God’s work. There’s no other way to put it, and I guess being here in a church I’m more likely to say it. I really believe that what I’m doing is connecting these people to a force that’s much bigger and better than they have ever experienced. And so when they can’t find someone who will care for them, when they can’t find the food they need or buy the clothes they need, they are able to find some joy in watching the little plants grow. I see that happening every day, and it gives me strength. I need that strength, believe me, and gardening certainly helps to develop it.

I would love to be able to provide people with counseling, with a therapist. We don’t have that kind of money, and no one is going to give it to us. But I know that working in a garden is therapeutic. I’ve heard too many people who have hurt others and hurt themselves say, “In the garden I find peace. That’s the only place.” I know it heals people, I know it helps people to feel connected to something bigger and better. Knowing that they are able to make a difference, that they are able to give back, helps them to forget that they used crack, hurt their families, shot dope, or whatever it is they did, and it helps them to find the strength to say: “I am not so horrible. I can do something good, and I have done something good,” and then to get on with their life.

For example, it turns out that a woman who rents us several houses where our folks live was in our program in 1982. I didn’t recognize her, and she didn’t tell me. Last year she said, “Cathrine, I have to tell you a secret. You mustn’t tell anyone, but I want you to know. You don’t remember me, but I was in your program. I had been a prostitute. I had kids, and I threw my kids away. I’ve hidden all that from everyone. It was working in the garden that made me feel like a better person.” This woman is now an accountant with the city and county of San Francisco, and she owns seven houses. People come to me all the time, wherever I am, and tell me that working in the garden helped them when nothing else did. And, I think, when nothing else could.

Gardening has helped me not to give up in times when I feel like giving up—and there are times when that’s every day—just as it helps the people we work with who have given up. They are closed, and then suddenly they have hope. Suddenly they are saying, “Well, maybe in a few years…” When we first meet them, they aren’t thinking a few years into the future. They will say: “People don’t expect me to be alive when I’m twenty. Why are you talking to me about what will happen when I’m twenty-five?” They tell me that their brother or their cousin was recently shot down, and they wonder when that is going to happen to them. I am in the position of having to say to them: “Yes, that can happen, and yes, that did happen, but what can we do about it? What can we do? What are we doing?” That’s what we talk about all the time while we’re cutting brush and planting seeds and doing various things that need doing in a garden.

In 1982 I started the Horticulture Program for prisoners in the San Francisco County Jail in San Bruno, twelve miles from the city and near the San Francisco airport. The jail is on 145 acres, and our farm has grown to about fourteen. The farm is fences because of the deer, but deer are very ingenious. They have put holes in the fence, and they just walk right in. Still, most of what’s in the field the deer don’t get. One prisoner had others sign a complaint saying that I was horrible because I wasn’t taking care of the deer. They didn’t have beds or a house to sleep in, I didn’t give them water or food, so the poor things had to go out and find their own food. That’s the only complaint I’ve ever had.

The Horticulture Program continued until 1996. In 1992 I began a program for prisoners who had been released from jail and called it The Garden Project. When I started it in a vacant lot in San Francisco, I had been told that I was going to die of kidney disease. Well, I’m still here, and now The Garden Project—its offices, its farm and nurseries—has its headquarters at the jail, even though it is a program for people who have been released from jail and for at-risk youth. We have not worked with prisoners in many years; we just use the jail land because it is available and already has the farm facilities. Our Earth Stewards are working in a watershed, where we are removing invasive weeds. The two places adjoin, and what I’m hoping to do is start a community land trust to preserve this land and designate it as a farm forever. I’d like to have new buildings put there or at least renovate the old ones that were built in 1934. They don’t have electricity or heat. The Sheriff’s Department hasn’t had the money to upgrade the barn, the toilets, the classroom, etc. For too many winters I’ve been cold, so electricity and heat would be a welcome addition. I’m hoping to broaden our funding base of small donors and family foundations and raise enough money to make the renovations.

I didn’t think The Garden Project would be anything more than a few prisoners coming outside and growing a few things and maybe staying out of trouble. I didn’t think at the time that twenty-five years later people would stop me on the street and say: “You don’t recognize me. Well, let me tell you who I am. I am the person you kicked out of class because I was acting up so bad. But then you let me come back, and after that I found my way. Now I have kids. Now I have a house.”

One of those people is Anthony, who was eighteen when he joined the Horticulture Program at the San Bruno jail. He was the worst punk I had ever met. There’s no other way to say it, and I told him so. He was disruptive in class, didn’t want to be there, was always ready to tell me how bogus this work thing was, this garden thing, this hope thing. The whole thing was just bogus, and anyway, I was only a woman. What did I know?—Eventually, I threw him out of the program. By the time he was released a few years later, we had started The Garden Project in San Francisco. When he appeared there, I thought, Oh no, the pain in the neck is back. He had been in the pen, in the penitentiary, for five years for selling drugs. Now, I want you to know that in the five years he spent in San Quentin and any other prison he was sent to, the state of California spent at least $60,000 each of those years just to keep Anthony in jail. He could not read at second-grade level when he left me, and he didn’t learn to read while he was in prison either.

When Anthony came back to us, he said, “I know you don’t want to see me,” and I said, “No, I don’t, because I know there’s nothing I can say to you that I didn’t already say before.” He assured me that he had changed. “I have a daughter now, and I’m completely different. All I’m asking you to do is give me a chance.” I told him I would give him another chance, just one, and that was it. He said, “I’m going to show you.” And Anthony did show me. He is now in his early forties, is buying his house, has a permanent civil-service job with the water department, and reads at eighth-grade level. One of his daughters just graduated from high school and is working for the Sheriff’s Department, where she makes $4000 a month as a Sheriff’s Cadet, and will be going to college because she wants to make a life for herself. Anthony’s father came to the jail the other day, and he said: “Cathrine, you don’t realize what you did for my family. You saved us. You took my son and turned him into someone else. And you saved not just him but his daughters.” I said: “I didn’t do anything. The garden did it. Anthony did it. All I did was give him a place where he could make something of himself.” And it cost way less than $60,000 a year. I’m always eager to talk about what we’re doing because I want to let citizens everywhere know that they must tell our government, tell anymore who will listen, that we cannot continue to spend that $60,000 per person on keeping people in jail. I ask you to use your voices as citizens and talk to your legislators about what you want our spending priorities to be.

Remember that the $60,000 annual cost doesn’t pay for the probation or parole officers or for the judges. It doesn’t pay for what the families are deprived of. It’s just the cost of keeping a person in jail. In San Francisco our sheriff’s deputies at 21 are making $65,000 a year with only a high-school diploma. I know that but for the grace of God it could just as well be those deputies who are in jail. It’s a matter of their having a job. We’re trying to build that bridge for the folks we’re working with by giving them a job outside, and specifically one that enables them to connect with nature.

A young woman in our program brought 19-year-old Chastity to us. Her parents died when she was 13. That’s when she started taking care of her brother Leonard, age 11. They lived in cars for years, anywhere they could. Chastity is amazingly gifted in math. We told her that with her ability she could become a mathematician, she could do anything, whereas she was used to being asked if she wanted to be a prostitute, if she wanted to sell drugs. When Leonard came with us to Yosemite, he was the happiest fellow, always smiling. I asked him why he was so happy, and he said: “It’s because I know that me and my sister are going to make it now that we’re learning how to work. We’ll be able to make it on our own. And I’m happy because we feel like we’re part of this family. We’ve never had a family that didn’t take from us, that didn’t hurt us, and what you guys do is make us work real hard and then pay us for what we do. And you work right along with us.” That to me is what our program is all about, helping people to do the hard work and encouraging them to do what they love and what they know is right.

Another person in our program was Charles. I think he was about 45 when he arrived. From the time he was 18, he had spent time in jail every year. The longest he was out of jail was the six months before he came to us. That’s a lot of dollars we as citizens have paid to keep him there. He could have gone to Harvard how many times during that period. And what is Charles doing now? For the first time in his life he has successfully completed parole. Why? Because instead of languishing on the street, as usually happens, Charles said he wanted to work with us. After I gave him a job, he learned how to work, he got a driver’s license, learned how to read and write, found a place to live, and was able to take care of himself. Let’s see, we pay him $13 an hour. It’s far cheaper to employ Charles and teach him to work than to have him in and out of San Quentin or whatever prison it is. It’s important that we as citizens understand this and say: “I want to see what our tax dollars are doing. I want to see what we’re getting for our money. Show me the benefits to society of the thousands and thousands of dollars we’re giving to this system that is so broken it’s outrageous.” Our project is trying to contribute toward fixing the broken system.

Law enforcement is an extremely closed community. It’s very difficult to work within a law enforcement agency. I am very fortunate because I’m Special Assistant to Sheriff Hennessey and I have a badge. Because I’ve been with him since 1980, the deputies assume that the sheriff is aware of everything I do and say. To be honest, Sheriff Hennessey is running a jail; I’m running this other thing. But they think that if they beat down one of my guys, the sheriff is going to know instantly because I’m going to run and tell him all. Well, I’m not going to let them beat down one of my people in the first place. The other day one of our young people was leaving the jail, and a staff person was in such a hurry that he backed into the car she was driving and totaled it. The airbags even went off, and her neck was hurt. One of the deputies ran out and was going to arrest the girl! When I asked him what he thought he was doing, he said, “Well, the car she’s in is city property.” “And you’re going to arrest her because someone backed into her?” No, you’re not doing that, and I’m going to call the sheriff right now.” Actually, the sheriff was already gone, so I couldn’t have called him, but what I’m saying is that there are definitely obstacles. It takes a great deal of effort to go into a prison or jail and work there. I really encourage people to try to find staff they can work with, staff who will explain how things are done inside. It’s essential to understand the arrangements and the barriers and not assume that the prison establishment is going to be cooperative. And it’s important to understand that people who are incarcerated have a lot of problems that have to be dealt with. It’s not a wise idea to think otherwise because then when something happens, the staff will say, “See, these programs don’t work.” And they’ll say it all the more if something happens to me. That’s why I encourage people to come and visit us. There’s so much I can tell them and show them.

Sometimes the staff takes it out on me. I used to have to go up seven floors to get to the prisoners, and I was supposed to be accompanied, but they’d say, “You want them, go get them yourself.” So I did. I just said, “Then give me a whistle.” I’d go up there alone, and of course I was well aware that something could happen to me. Prisoners have done really horrible things, some of them. How many times have I seen someone stomped on and now in a coma because he was on the phone when a prisoner who was bigger than him didn’t want to wait to use the phone? I knew it was crucial to have a good relationship with the prisoners. Now, they understood that I was advocating for them, and if they did something to me, then who would speak on their behalf?

When people say, “Oh, three strikes, so let’s lock the criminals up and give them long sentences,” I ask: what about the staff people going home to their families at night? How many wives or children are going to be beaten? Isn’t that criminal?” People in law enforcement have the highest alcoholism, suicide, and divorce rates of any profession. What does their job do to them? Well, they get broken too. It’s a paranoid place. A lot of bad things happen there, and the staff tends to see only the bad in the prisoners, so planting a garden was a way to get the deputies and the staff out of the jail to let them see that they are imprisoned too. My hope is to help both prisoners and guards to recognize what they have done wrong, take responsibility for themselves and do something else with their lives. That takes courage.

When we were starting up the garden at the county jail, I noticed the staff looking at prisoners in a different way and beginning to say: “Now wait, they can produce broccoli. They’re doing impressive work. Maybe they’re not the jailbirds we always thought they were. Maybe they’re not just…” I won’t even say some of the names they called them. I know that for deputy sheriffs and prison guards all over this country the issue is jobs, not that they are working in jails filled with black and brown prisoners. It’s about being able to pay their bills, make their mortgage payments, and take care of their family. Unfortunately, the way they are doing this is by keeping people in jail. And new jails are being built all over. I think that we as tax-paying citizens must ask why.

San Francisco has a new jail that cost $165,000,000. The city didn’t have the money, so a big corporation that builds jails did it and leased it back to San Francisco. Yes, the construction did provide jobs for a lot of people, and unlike the old jail, at least if there should be a fire or an earthquake in this one, the nine hundred prisoners inside, along with the deputy sheriffs, whom I worker with for 25 years, won’t be killed.

The old jail was on what was once a self-sustaining farm. It grew all the vegetables for the jail, all the vegetables for the hospitals, and provided milk to the schools. Then in the early 1970s the administration claimed that the prisoners wouldn’t do the gardening any more, but it was really that the staff decided it was easier to keep the prisoners inside, and so they did that. It wasn’t until 1984 that the sheriff allowed me to start bringing prisoners back outdoors. But now, with the new jail, there isn’t enough money to have staff people take the prisoners out and supervise them so they won’t run away. That’s why we have been working instead with ex-offenders and now with at-risk youth as well. The sheriff and I are still trying to figure out how to get the staffing so that we can resume the Horticulture Program and the prisoners can go outside again.

We can pretend that if the jails are upstate or downstate or wherever we put them that they don’t affect us. Out of sight, out of mind. But we’re still spending our tax dollars on keeping people in jail, keeping people who don’t read and write in a system that doesn’t teach them to read and write. Instead, they’re going to learn how to be better—or should I say worse?—criminals because that’s what being in jail teaches them. Even if they don’t learn that, what they see and what they experience hurts them, harms them in such a terrible way. Then when they are released, people expect them to be normal and to be able to cope. Well, they can’t cope without some preparation for being back in society, and so most people who get out of jail will return. In California 95 perfect of those released from our jails and prisons return within three months, and then the cycle continues. The Garden Project’s task is to break that cycle.

Let me tell you what The Garden Project is doing. We give away all of the food we grow. People ask why we donate our organic vegetables to poor people. They say we should sell them instead. We used to sell to Chez Panisse and other restaurants and to farmers’ markets, but one day it dawned on me that people who are well off don’t need our food. These other people do. I found an 85-year-old woman at a community center going through the garbage. A woman who worked all her life in this country was going through the garbage to find cans of food to feed herself. I approached her and told her we could provide the center with vegetables that we grow. We started doing that, and people are lined up at 7 o’clock in the morning even though we don’t get there until 11. They know they can rely on getting organically grown vegetables that they don’t have money to pay for. I tell our workers that we don’t have the luxury of saying we can’t take this on, because those people are depending on us, those families are depending on us. This gives our folks a purpose; they know they can make a contribution, the know they matter, and that’s why we are so effective in helping them to make changes in their lives. That’s why we have the lowest recidivism rate of any program in this country: 75 percent of the people who have been in our program do not return to jail. No other program has that success rate.

It’s not only that low-income people can’t afford to buy fresh organic produce; most of San Francisco’s poor are surrounded by toxins because they live in an area that has been designated as a Superfund site, where the asthma rate and the diabetes rates are astronomical. We make a special effort to give away as many vegetables as we can in that area. We set up farmers’ markets where there’s no money exchanged. We’ve also just started a garden in an area outside of San Francisco, with the idea that perhaps some of the people there will, as a way of keeping programs in their community going, sell some of the produce to people who can afford it. Then they can use the money for their various programs.

It costs so much to live in San Francisco that since I started working with the Sheriff’s Department, our African American population has gone down from almost 20 percent to 7 percent. Yes, it’s an expensive city, but still there is a lot of wealth there, and the priorities, like in many other places, are just plain nuts. When the people living adjacent to and in some cases on top of a Superfund site develop diabetes and asthma and cancer, they go to San Francisco General Hospital, and we’re paying for it. Or they have children with so much lead and God knows what else in them that they can’t learn, and then they end up in our jail. Surprise! In many ways I’m proud to live in San Francisco—and I don’t think I could have made The Garden Project happen in Newark, New Jersey, where I grew up—but I think the city has to do more and say less.

So does the state. Governor Schwarzenegger’s wife is interested in connecting children to gardening, and as the chair of the National Gardening Association I hope to tell her what we’re trying to do. I also want to say, “Ms. Shriver, your husband is giving early release to 20,000 prisoners a month because the state can’t afford to keep them in the prisons any more, and what do you think those people are going to do? Well, I’ll tell you. They’re going to rob people and use drugs and wreak havoc on the community because there is no plan to help them reintegrate into society. No thought has been given to it, but I can tell you this: They’re not going to lie in the street and starve. If they need something, they’re going to knock some older person in the head and grab her purse of do whatever it takes to survive, and we’re going to have to pay for it.” We have a lot of work to do, and as I say to the kids, talk is cheap.

The Garden Project is now working not only with ex-offenders but with young people who haven’t yet been in the adult prison system. I won’t say they don’t have a criminal record—most of them do—but what they also have is the desire to make a life for themselves. Some of them don’t even realize that’s what they have, but they have been given an opportunity to learn how to work and at the same time to do work that is meaningful. We spent this past summer and several summers before that in Yosemite—in the Hetch Hetchy valley, which is where San Francisco’s water comes from—with a group of young people in a program we’ve started called Earth Stewards. I thought it was important to come up with a name worthy of what they are doing. We say to them, “You know, there are some real environmental problems in this area, but we can change what’s happening. We can make a difference. We can do that by working together and by working hard. Not only that, you’ll get paid to do it. And isn’t it wonderful to be able to do work that helps others?” I tell them that an Earth Steward is someone who cares about the earth enough to help both our planet and people on the planet. An Earth Steward understands that we are all connected to the earth and to one another.

This program shows them that they don’t have to let someone else take over their life. They don’t have to wait and see what will be done to them; they can make something of themselves, but they understand that it will take hard work. It has really been an inspiration. I know that’s an overused word, but it is inspiring to see young people society has given up on working for others, working in San Francisco or working in Yosemite, where they remove mountains and mountains of invasive plants, learning what those invasive plants are doing to our ecosystem, learning that with their own hands they are able to make some profound and lasting changes. Sometimes it takes us longer to get the job done because the workers are planting and snipping and having such a good time that I have to say: “Can we please get the job done? Can we do the job and be happy?” But I’m happy that they’re happy.

I have members of my family who work with us. My sister Kaye, who is a special ed teacher in New York state, and my brother-in-law Rudy both come with us to Yosemite. We take youth from a place where the only animals they know are rats and roaches. They have to get used to seeing other creatures. When I ask them not to kill anything, they want to know why they shouldn’t kill rats and mosquitoes and flies. I tell them we don’t kill anything because we’re Earth Stewards. We’re here to protect, we’re here to help, we’re here to make things better. That’s what we’re about. The kids look at me as though they’re thinking: “Here she goes again. We’ve heard this before.” They act as if they’re not paying attention to what I’m telling them, but I know that inside they do take it seriously. When Rudy shows them the film about global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth,” as our evening activity and then discusses it with them, they say, “Our teachers never bothered to try to discuss things with us.” No one ever said, let’s talk about this, what does this mean to you? Because unfortunately many people believe these youth don’t have the capacity to understand it, and yet every day in heir life they see an inconvenient truth, and the inconvenient truth is that they are garbage that has been thrown away. No one expects them to overcome that. But then the message they get from us is, “Excuse me, you are not garbage. You are here for a purpose. We are a team, we’re working together, and we have a job to do, so let’s do it. Let’s not sit around and whine and cry about what could have been or ooh, we can’t do this. We will, and we can, and we do.”

When one of them tells me that a deer chased someone or grabbed someone and pulled him into the bushed and maybe even ate him, it takes a lot for me not to laugh. But it’s not funny that children are growing up in this country who don’t know about the natural world and don’t know much about themselves either. Once they understand the connection between themselves and the natural world, something happens. Suddenly you can see that they feel better about themselves, better about us, better about what their future will be. For me the most powerful aspect is that they begin to change the way they see the world. They gradually come to believe that they are responsible for themselves, that they can make a difference, even make a change in their family, make hope happen in their own lives, and do something that’s meaningful. To see that happening before our eyes is thrilling.

We have a contract with the city and county of San Francisco, the Sheriff’s Department, and our public utilities company. They pay our workers’ salaries, and they pay most of our expenses in employing these people. We were able to get the backing of two such large city agencies as the Sheriff’s Department and the public utilities company because, I think, our programs had a lot of media coverage, and also we have many friends. In addition, when people say no to me, I usually don’t listen. I just wear them out. Of course, it helps that the sheriff of San Francisco was my prison-law professor and has known me for 32 years. He basically allows me to run the program. Even though he’s sheriff and his job is to keep people in jail, he has a daughter, and he knows his daughter will one day be on a buss with someone who has just been released from jail. It’s very important to him that those who get out leave there feeling better about themselves than when they went in and are not the angry, lost people who will go out and hurt his daughter and other people’s daughters. So I’m very fortunate to have his support and cooperation.

Our contract does not include the cost of the boots we need when you go to Yosemite. If you’ve ever been camping, you know you should have boots as opposed to sneakers. Sneakers are not going to protect you from the rattlesnakes out there; they are inadequate for working on such steep hillsides. You need real boots for that terrain. We can’t just say we don’t have the money; we must get them boots no matter what. And I want our Earth Stewards to know that we care enough about them that we’re going to see to it that they have the equipment they need. They are quick to say: “Oh no, I don’t need boots. Just give me a job. I can go in my sneakers.” When I tell them we’re not going to let them try to climb those steep hills in sneakers, they say, “But boots aren’t cool.” You know, they worry about not being cool. But after working out there a day or two, they realize that they do need boots, ad there’s really no one to be cool for. The deer don’t care, the poison oak doesn’t care. Anyway, who’s going to see them? And then they understand that what they look like isn’t so important. It’s not the fancy shoes, it’s what they’re doing and who they are.

We are basically teachers. I have a lot of respect for anyone who has ever taught. I will never forget my teacher when I was in tenth grade. She said to me, “I don’t know what you’re doing with yourself, but you have so much potential, and if you worked on it, God, what you could become!” That was the first time I had ever been told that. Now what I do with the young people we’re working with is to say to them whenever I can: “You have potential. You can make something of yourself. Think about what you did yesterday. Think about that broccoli and the other vegetables we took to places were people really need food. You made the difference that day for people who have nothing. They know you worked hard to grow the beets, to grow the Swiss chard, the cabbage, the collards, and all the vegetables we produce and then to get them to the people who need them the most. You did that. We did that working together.” And honest to goodness, I see them hold their chins up higher because they feel that they are valued, that they matter. We can tell them so, and I do tell them, but it’s better for them to feel it because of what they’re doing. People ask me where I get my inspiration. Where does it come from, and how can it be replicated? I think about that a lot, and I believe it comes from the support and encouragement of my family. What I’m trying to do is give the people I work with that same support and encouragement I’ve been given myself.

My sister loves to cook, and last week when we were in Yosemite, Kaye and I decided we would prepare a turkey dinner for the kids. She was in the kitchen with the turkey and the stuffing on the counter. One of the girls came in and asked, “Are you going to put this stuffing in the turkey?” And Kaye said, “Yes, it goes in the turkey.” “Oh, I’ve never had that,” she squealed. I wanted to ask, What, you’ve never had turkey with stuffing? But I didn’t. When Kaye was baking the month before, the kids were wide-eyed. “Is this an apple pie? You mean you made it? You can make pie? It doesn’t have to come from the supermarket?” People ask why we put so much emphasis on cooking and feeding our kids. Why? Because we’re trying to teach them with what we have. We’re teaching them that with care, you grow; with nurturing, you heal. And that can begin to happen with an apple pie that Kaye is baking for them. They realize she’s making that pie or whatever it may be because she cares.

Our emphasis on food is also our way of being able to have discussions about the other food our kids are eating, about nutrition in general. Most of their diets are the same as what I used to feed my own children when I was on welfare: hot dogs, potato chips, soda, Cool-Aid, and things you could buy for a couple of dollars. Now I know enough to say: “Hey, that stuff is not good for you. In fact, it’s bad for you.” More and more people have diabetes and other illnesses that are diet related. We have the opportunity to encourage our group to think about what they eat. We can set a good example that may lead them to change their eating habits. When our young people live for an unlimited amount of time on a poor diet, what does it do to them? What does it do to their  children? Because many of them have children of their own. They have big problems confronting them, and we take those problems on one by one and ask, How do we deal with that? For example, How do we deal with helping to change their diet? Well, I can talk to them about food by the hour, but it’s much more effective when Kaye cooks them the kind of decent meals they aren’t used to. People ask me if this is cost effective. Tell me, is it cost effective when they get diabetes and are in and out of a hospital? Is that more cost effective than providing nutritious food, most of which we grow? The answer is pretty obvious. I don’t think it”s hard to figure out, but apparently for many folks it is.

Just teaching people how to get up at the same time every day and go to work is a hard job, especially when you realize that there are Americans who have never gotten a pay check. the only check they’ve ever seen is a welfare check or a social security check or some other kind of government check. We have generations of people who have never ever had family members who go to work, so how do they know to get up and go to work at a certain time? I can’t tell you how often I’ve been asked: “You mean I have to go to work every day at the same time? I have to be here at 7 o’clock? What if I don’t feel like coming? What if…?”

It also took a lot of effort for us to get them uniformed. They’re wonderful padded overalls, seventy-seven dollars a piece. We had them all outfitted, and then a couple of days later several kids weren’t wearing them. I asked, “Where’s your uniform?” “Oh, you mean I have to wear it every day?” “Yes, and the reason you have to wear it every day is because you’re using those sharp hedgers, and they may cut into your leg, which has already happened.” The young men do get rather exuberant, especially when they’re handling power tools. They assure me that they know how to use the chain saw. Alex, a wonderful young man, kept insisting that he was ready to use it. He was so sad when I said no that I was tempted to give in, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to have to tell his mother that he got cut up using a chain saw because he wasn’t ready. When the kids accuse us of treating them as though they were our own children I say, “You are our children, and no, you can’t use the chain saw.” I think gradually even Alex understood that it’s because we care about him. In fact, this is the first time in his life someone has cared enough to say no, you can’t—and mean it.

In spite of his resentment about the chain saw, when Alex’s brother beat and raped him, Alex has the courage to come to me and say, “Cathrine, my brother needs a job. My mother is so afraid because sometimes he does terrible things.” He came to me when no one else was around. He knew I wouldn’t say anything in front of the others that would let them know what was happening in his family. I saw the pain in that boy’s face. No one else had helped his family, so we took his brother in, and because we provide medical and dental coverage, we were able to get him medical care. He was diagnosed as bipolar, and now with the medication, at least he’s able to cope, at least he’s no longer violent at home. He can’t work with us any more, but he’s getting the treatment he needs. And Alex knows that.

Alex has been through so much, and yet he can reach out to help other people. A couple of weeks ago he brought us a boy who was homeless. “He really needs help, Cathrine. He was in New Orleans when Katrina struck. He’s got no clothes, he’s got nothing, and I told him you would help him.” I thought, What am I going to tell the people who decide our budget, who tell me I can’t do any more hiring? I didn’t say that to Alex; I just said, “OK, bring the boy to us.” Next day, there he was. Jaqwan. He has one pair of pants. He’s been living in cars. And yet he was smiling. He shouted: “You’re going to give me a job. I’m going to be able to work.” He was so happy, and he worked so hard. He was the first one into the poison oak, the first one picking everything up, just grinning with enthusiasm. It was the most beautiful thing to see. When I told him all that I expected of him, he said, “Miss Cathrine”—because he’s from New Orleans, it’s Miss Cathrine—”I promise I will not let you down.” I said, “Jaqwan, you can’t let me down, you can only let yourself down. We have a job to do, and we’re asking you to help us do it. Not only that, we’re going to pay you to do it.” But for me it’s more about Alex than it is about Jaqwan. As broken and hurt as Alex was, he could reach out and bring someone else to us for help. Jaqwan is African American, and Alex is Spanish speaking. In many cities of course the two don’t mix. Yet Alex had the heart, the nerve, the hope to bring this boy to me and ask if we could help him—and to know that we would.

With my family and the young people we are working with I feel that together we are making headway. But how much more we would be able to accomplish if we were fully funded, if we could be confident of having the money to continue our work. The Project used to plant trees for the city, but the funding was used up. You probably take for granted the beautiful trees you have here in the Berkshires; we have so few trees, it’s just ridiculous. And of course it costs money to take care of those to take care of those we do have. They have to be pruned and watered and weeded. But no, we don’t do that. Just the other day a woman was killed as she was getting in her car because a tree fell on her. Every year in San Francisco more than $500,000 is spent on claims—for trees that have failed, basically because they’ve been topped. It costs less to hire a tree topper than an arborist. Topping weakens the limbs, and the trees topple over and kill people or destroy property. I told one of the Supervisors that our project needed money for its tree-planting program. He said it cost too much, it wasn’t his issue, we were dealing with black people, there were no black people in his district, no poor people in his district. And I said: “I’m not talking about black people. I’m talking about the trees in your district.” But he said no anyway. Well, the city stopped funding our program, and we stopped planting trees. That was in 2002. Now San Francisco is trying to figure out how to be the green city but still hasn’t figured out how to put money into trees.

Then too, it would make a huge difference if I didn’t have to go out and beg for money for boots, if we had an education staff, if we had a real building with an office where I actually received email the same day it was sent because the wood rats weren’t chewing the wires. We have a phone that doesn’t work at all any more and a cell phone that works some of the time. Why do I have to panhandle for a program that has worked and continues to work? It doesn’t make sense. People say, “Well, maybe if you approached it in a different way, if you weren’t so, you know, maybe you could be quieter, maybe more polite.” I can’t be that way. I can’t. I’ve seen too many children suffering. I’ve seen too many people die.

There’s a wonderful young man named Deiondrick, who was so excited to be with us. We had given him the day off on July 3. Right around the corner from our garden, not even a block from the police station, this young man was in his cousin’s car. A 17-year-old kid had it in for the cousin and shot him dead with an AK 47. Excuse me, where did he get that? He doesn’t have a diploma, but he has an AK 47. Deiondrick, who had been asleep, woke up and saw that his cousin was dead. He started to get out of the car, and the 17-year-old with the AK 47 shot him too. Deiondrick is paralyzed from the waist down. He’s been in the hospital for over three months and is not expected to walk again. Who’s going to pay for that? And I ask, why is it easier for young people to get an AL 47 than a G.E.D.? It doesn’t make sense.

When the cop who found Deiondrick called me, he said: “I don’t know who you are or what it is you do, but I’ll tell you this: when we found the boy, do you know what he said to the officer who responded? He said: ‘Oh no, I can’t be hurt. I have to go to work. I have to be at work July 5.'” The officer asked him where he worked. “I work in the garden. I work with The Garden Project.” I have work to do. We’re going to Yosemite. I have work to do. I have to be able to walk.” The officer said it broke his heart. And it breaks my heart that he’s lying there not knowing if he’s going to live, and all he wants is to get back to work. I don’t think there’s anything else in Deiondrick’s life that has mattered as much to him as his work with The Garden Project, and this tells me that what we’re doing is the right thing to do.

Looking toward the future, I recently became the chair of the National Gardening Association, an organization I’ve belonged to for many years. No one else wanted the job, so I took it. My idea is that as chair I’ll be able to steer this national organization toward being helpful in new ways. For instance, every single day the Project gets calls and emails asking for information about how to get people to garden and how to replicate our program. With National Gardening I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to put together a package, a model, to provide people all over the country with information and to connect them to gardening. I want to use my position to say to a much larger audience what I’ve been saying right along—that gardens heal and help in ways we aren’t even fully aware of.

We’ve had good press in the past, but now we also want to use the internet to get the word out more broadly. My nephew is helping us develop a blog that will tell our story. We do ask for money, but it’s hard to say, “Can you help us?” when there are so many other good organizations out there for people to donate to. We’re planning to start a business that will generate income, and we hope to expand our contract work, including highway planting in the Bay Area.

You may have heard about what happened at the San Francisco Zoo on Christmas Day. One of the tigers escaped from his cage, killed a young man, and mauled his friends. The vegetation around the cage had become so overgrown that the tiger just grabbed onto it and got out that way. We were asked to come and help clear the vegetation. The superintendent there is my friend. We had done work for him a couple of months before this happened, but we had to stop when the money ran out. Now the zoo is facing a liability lawsuit that’s going to cost the city who knows how many millions of dollars. It would have been cheaper and far preferable to pay $13 an hour and let our young people clean up that mess. It would have saved a life s well as having the animals better cared for because their caregivers wouldn’t also be trying to keep up with the weeding around the cages. That’s a contract we would welcome as well.

The message I want to send all over the country is that there are jobs that can and should be done by people who aren’t doing anything else but hurting themselves and potentially hurting others. We need to make what we’re doing happen in many places by convincing others that it’s working.

Just as plants have definite needs, I believe that people too have definite needs, and I know from my years of experience that gardening does help people to deal with and take care of those needs and teaches them how to nurture first the plants and then hopefully themselves. It’s something that can happen anywhere and everywhere. The fact that all of you came here to hear me talk about our project adds to my sense of hope that what we’re doing can be done in other places. I want to spend the rest of my life letting people know what The Garden Project does and helping them to do the same thing.


Publication By

Cathrine Sneed

Cathrine Sneed is the director and founder of The Garden Project in San Francisco, California, a program begun in 1992 to provide job training and support to former offenders through counseling and assistance in continuing education while also impacting the environment of their communities. Prior to the Garden Project, Cathrine founded the San Francisco County … Continued

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