2017 Special Needs 3rd Place – NORCOR/Spring Plant Fair, Wasco County, OR

Wasco County Master Gardener’s NORCOR and Spring Fair Project

Wasco County Master Gardener Association headquartered in The Dalles, Oregon created an educational project partnering with the Northern Oregon Region Correctional Juvenile Detention Facility. The NORCOR/Spring Plant Fair Project is a juvenile inmate educational project that incorporates classroom learning with hands on learning experiences. The project serves as the major fundraiser for WCMGA and provides Detention some funds to operate the facility’s greenhouse.

Wasco County Master Gardeners partner with NORCOR to collectively use their large greenhouse. NORCOR provides the greenhouse, water and power along with the staffing required to monitor the detained youth. Their educational staff provides the academic background for their science curriculum. We share the greenhouse space and worked with the students growing a large variety of plants: annuals, herbs, perennials, vegetables, and ornamental grasses.

In the fall when we select plant varieties that should grow well in our region. We prepare the greenhouse including needed electrical and plumbing repairs, and with NORCOR purchase the soils, pots etc. necessary to grow the plants. We review our planting records and determine the order that the seeds will be planted to have them ready to market on a single day.
This is no small task. From January to May we grow over 250 different varieties totaling approximately 6,500 plants. The large variety of plants complicates the greenhouse management since they have varying growing requirements. Each year additional new plants are grown to increase variety and maintain interest.

The students can only participate after they have maintained several days of exemplary behavior as rated by NORCOR Staff. They are escorted to the greenhouse by officers who remain while they are in the greenhouse. Master gardener volunteers assign tasks and develop short lessons for the students when they arrive at the greenhouse.

This activity provides them an opportunity to learn and enjoy nature in an otherwise restricted residence. The officers have indicated that the youth that participate in the greenhouse are better behaved. They learn about seeds, soils, plant identification, transplanting, irrigation techniques, fertilizer schedules, temperature control, while engaging with adults and co-workers, learning the ability to work together while gaining life-long work skills and experience.

When asked the teacher at the detention center stressed three major benefits for the students’

  • A sense of pride and accomplishment especially for the longer-term residents.
  • The opportunity to collaborate and work together on a project with adults. Teenagers working along with adults on a mutually beneficial project is an unusual experience especially in a correctional facility.
  • The opportunity to find and create interest at the secured facility besides the teacher’s academic courses which helps them transition to a ‘bigger world’ on their release.

Master Gardeners presented about 20 certificates of accomplishment for the students that worked in the greenhouse five times during the 2016 season. The participating NORCOR youth are assigned write a thank you letter to the master gardeners that indicates the emotions that they feel while working at the greenhouse. A few are allowed to leave the facility and attend the plant fair; participating by providing information to buyers, making sales, and helping to transport the plants to vehicles.

Our project culminates with a Spring Plant Fair at The Dalles City Park on the day before Mother’s Day each year. The fair is a festive event. We sell all the plants we have grown at the greenhouse, local vendors participate selling their wares, and organizations set up informational booths on their projects. Our community eagerly supports these activities. Over 750 people attended our spring fair in 2017 in a community of approximately 15,000 residents, some arriving thirty minutes early to ensure getting the best plants.

All involved earn a sense of accomplishment working towards a goal, and the ability to work with strangers. The best result is the look on the faces of those involved when we roll out approximately 6,500 plants and load them on the flatbed trucks and into vehicles. The colorful parade of healthy beautiful flowers and plants is very impressive. The youth are stunned when they see the results of their labors; taking pride in their accomplishment, many of these students have had few successes in their lives. At the end of the project the greenhouse once filled with colorful flowers and plants is stark, it’s empty.

We do not have any method of knowing how our program affected the lives of our team members after their release. We have been told from correction officials that our certificates have been used for job references.

We also consider this project challenging and educational to ourselves. The impact for Master Gardeners is that we have greatly increased our knowledge of greenhouse management and developed techniques to ensure the health of our plants. The project is a great practical hands-on teaching tool experience supplementing classroom Master Gardener training. It has been a great way to bring new master gardeners hands on experience and a chance to practice what they have learned in master gardener training.

Attendance at the Spring Plant Fair has increased significantly over the years. The people who attend the fair often tell Master Gardener volunteers that they intentionally buy our plants to support the NORCOR youth and show appreciation for our involvement with the NORCOR project. The community support for the partnership of WCMGA and NORCOR is impressive, proven by watching the plants raised collectively with incarcerate youths and Master Gardeners leave the city park to home and community gardens. The community benefits, the detainees benefit, and so do the Wasco County Master Gardener’s. Our Wasco County Master Gardeners have dedicated a lot of time and effort to make this project successful. It is a win-win-win project and could be modified to be used in other institutions and locations.