Tuskegee Youth Safe Haven Mentoring

It all began with a seed.  Our children at Tuskegee Youth Safe Haven are between the ages of 5 and 19 years old.  The majority live in public housing, however we have those from the general Tuskegee community also.  They meet daily after school during the academic year and average 2 - 3 days per week during the summer months.

The impact of the Mentors / Garden program has been tremendous.  The first summer the children were asked to dig a hole and place a seed in the hole.  The children would push some surface soil aside and ask, “is this enough?”.  It took a few times of repeating the instructions to realize they had never dug a hole before, . . . ever!

The days of sand boxes as play areas, or simple gardening with parents or even grandparents were long over.  The children were raised on video games and concrete or asphalt playgrounds.  The concept of playing in nature was avoided at all costs, by parents and this was passed on to the children.  The closest thing to nature was playing football on a grass covered vacant lot.

The Tuskegee University Social Work Student Mentors had to show the youth how to dig holes, with their hands and plant the seeds, then cover them up.  This was strange to them at first, but soon they acclimated and this became a part of their lives.  They identified with the Garden program and even organized themselves into the  “Safe Haven Garden” and now the "Macon County Teens" as a business enterprise, to sell their vegetables and other products.

All of the children ate fresh corn from the field for the first time at the Garden / Mentors program.  They were introduced to many of the vegetables by planting them and seeing them grow.  This caused them to broaden their acceptable food lists, even in families that minimize vegetables on the menu.

One of our Safe Haven Youth Advocates took some of their Zucchini squash, which they grew from seeds, and cooked it on a George Foreman Grill with butter seasoning and olive oil.  When the process began the children were mostly turning up their noses, saying they don’t eat “that”.  But when they smelled the squash grilling, they changed their minds and all had a taste.  Several said they wanted their mothers to cook it at home, but all said it was good and wanted seconds.

The Tuskegee Youth Safe Haven is evaluated each year based on academic performance by the youth and crime in the local community.  As a direct result of the Garden / Mentors intervention the children are more active in their academic program.  All youth have displayed improvements or the maintenance of their initial grade performance in school.  They also have an increased interest and excitement for participation in the after school activities.  This has reached the point that many youth are even indignant when sessions are rescheduled or canceled, or the van is late picking up.  They all want to be regular participants.

When we talk with the children about goals and careers, they now have thought more on these subjects.  The children have begun to identify with the University students and the fact that they are going to school to learn an occupation.  This is significant in that many of the families have zero college grads and few if any high school graduates.

The sessions with the Mentors are filled with fun activities and learning activities.  As the children learn new skills in craft making, their confidence has increased.

This has strengthened their ability to resist peer pressure and take stands against negative activities.  The children are also associating the Mentor sessions with having fun and something of which they want to be associated.

This contributed to the current status that none of the children in the program have had any dealing with the juvenile justice system and no criminal behavior has taken place in school.  We have also had zero pregnancies of the children enrolled in the program.

Overall the Garden / Mentors program has made a major difference in the lives of the Safe Haven youth participants.  The weekly intervention can seem to some as insignificant, however in the lives of the children it’s impact on their development has been invaluable. 

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