About 10 Loveland teenagers arrived in Dixie Straight’s front yard just as the summer heat was starting to descend on a recent Monday morning. Soon, the sweat began to show on their brows as they pulled weeds, scraped grass from between bricks on the front walk and plucked dead blossoms from a swell of purple and gold irises.

Teenagers in the Youth Gardening Program in Loveland remove grass from a brick walk.
Teenagers in the Youth Gardening Program in Loveland remove grass from a brick walk.

There wasn’t much typical teen talk. No debriefing about funny YouTube videos or planned pool meet-ups. Seventeen-year-old Emily complained about the heat as she hacked at a section of unwanted grass, but mildly enough that you could tell she was still enjoying herself.

Adam announced he’d found a spider’s egg sack in a black planter and several students hurried over to check it out.

Bella exclaimed to no one in particular, “What the heck? I haven’t even found one worm today?”

The students, who all have special needs or are at risk of school failure, are part of a unique summer program offered by a local non-profit called Loveland Youth Gardeners. (The program asked not to give students’ last names to protect their privacy.) Through the organization’s 17-year-old “Youth Gardening Program,” they learn job skills, social skills and life skills by planting and tending personal garden plots as well as community herb and vegetable gardens.

While planting, watering, weed-pulling and harvesting are the tasks at hand, anyone familiar with the program will tell you the results are far more profound than a pile of ripe tomatoes or a bed of colorful flowers. Essentially, they say, gardening is the vehicle for personal transformations, ranging from holding coherent conversations to making close friends.

Ross Milliken, former board president of Loveland Youth Gardeners, said his daughter Bailey found a sense of belonging in the program that she’d never experienced at her high school, where she was often teased because of her special needs.

“All of the sudden, here was this program where she was an insider,” he said

Milliken admits that at first, he didn’t see the point of sending Bailey to a gardening program when there was a garden in their backyard that she was welcome to use.

“The name can be deceiving…It’s not just a gardening program,” he said. “What I discovered is that those kids found a home.”

🔗Going on instinct

Joanna Rago, executive director of Loveland Youth Gardeners, started the Youth Gardening Program as a pilot project in 1996. At the time, she was a practicing clinical social worker working with children and teenagers who had behavioral and emotional problems.

“Part of the inspiration was because I knew young people needed something besides weekly therapy and talking about their issues,” she said.

Rago enjoyed gardening herself and instinctively believed it would benefit students. That summer, 13 teenagers participated in the inaugural program at an elementary school garden.

This summer, a dozen students, ages 13-18, are in the program, which now takes place at several sites near downtown Loveland, including Straight’s front yard. In addition to horticulture lessons and hands-on gardening, there are field trips, guest speakers and many opportunities to hone skills, such as shaking hands when meeting people, making eye contact, talking audibly in front of a group and working as part of a team.

Students in the Youth Gardening Program walk to garden sites around downtown Loveland, logging their steps along the way.
Students in the Youth Gardening Program walk to garden sites around downtown Loveland, logging their steps along the way.

The youth gardeners work three hours every morning Monday through Thursday and sometimes do additional volunteer work on the weekend. Although Loveland Youth Gardeners only employs the equivalent of 1.5 employees, interns and volunteers keep the adult-to-student ratio about one to three.

Over the years, the Youth Gardening Program has become more structured and builds in more accountability with a “three-strikes” policy and a $200 “achievement award” towards the end of the program instead of an hourly wage throughout. There is also a greater focus on community involvement, with students tending gardens at a local sculpture park, a city museum and an elementary school as well as two on private land.

🔗Branching out

In addition to the 10-week Youth Gardening Program, the non-profit runs Leaf Out, a companion program for the same population that provides cooking classes and volunteer opportunities during the school year and, for students 13-21 who can work more independently, gardening internships during the summer.

For younger children, Loveland Youth Gardeners offers a series of classes and camps called Green Adventures. The organization also coordinates Loveland’s Plant-A-Row for the Hungry campaign, to which the youth gardeners routinely donate hundreds of pounds of produce.

While the organization has grown over the years, it is still relatively small. It has an annual budget of $96,000 and, like many non-profits, faces consistent funding challenges.

Rago always believed the Youth Gardening Program was filling a need in the community, but it wasn’t until 1999 she saw hard evidence. While helping assess gaps in youth services for a different job, she found that there was very little vocational or life skills programming, particularly during the summer, for special needs and at-risk teens.

“That was 14 years ago and it’s still true,” she said.

Sarah Newton, whose son Zander started in the Youth Gardening Program in 2009 and is now a Leaf Out intern, said the void is even more pronounced for those older than 18. She said her son has mild to moderate mental retardation and a form of muscular dystrophy. Before learning that Zander, now 19, had secured one of five summer internships through Loveland Youth Gardeners this year, she’d talked with friends who have backyard gardens, hoping to cobble together a homemade garden-tending program for him.

“As a parent, it’s tough,” she said.

🔗Seeing the impact

Newton remembers a pivotal moment during her son’s first summer as a youth gardener. Zander, who had a hard time looking people in the eye and tended to start off-topic conversations, was giving a tour of the youth garden to a pair of visitors. Then he looked at them and asked, “What do you grow in your garden?”

Students work next to the community garden plots they planted in the front yard of Dixie Straight, a volunteer "host."
Students work next to the community garden plots they planted in the front yard of Dixie Straight, a volunteer “host.”

“It was such a huge moment for us and for him,” she said. “What we truly saw was more of an interest in the world around him in a relevant way.”

That connection to both people and nature is a major benefit of such programming, said Rebecca Haller, director of the Horticultural Therapy Institute in Denver.

“It can bring a lot of engagement in life,” she said.

Haller said she knows of no other program in Colorado like Loveland Youth Gardeners, with its intensive gardening emphasis and its focus on special needs and at-risk teens.

“For some of these kids, it’s a place they can succeed that’s different from an academic classroom,” she said. “That can be a really profound shift for that person, in their self-esteem, their self-worth.”

Most of the teens involved don’t cite reasons like increasing self-esteem when explaining why they applied to participate. They’re more likely to mention needing a job, wanting to make friends or enjoying the outdoors. Still, hints of those deeper changes often linger just under the surface.

Emily, a returning youth gardener with a chatty demeanor, was blasé when she described finding out about the program through her aunt. She reports saying, “Eh, I’ll give it a try,” but soon adds earnestly, “I think it went beyond what I hoped for.”

Austin, who recently finished 11th grade at an alternative high school in Loveland, described himself as only “kinda, sorta” interested in gardening, but then gave this assessment of the program: “I think it’s going to be good. I’m having a lot of fun and all these kids are really nice.”