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Teens Shuck Life on Streets for an Opportunity to Grow : Juveniles: At-risk youth spend time each week tending court school garden. They learn discipline and teamwork as well as agriculture.

September 05, 1993|ALICIA DI RADO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ten young farmers haul armloads of sweet corn from a sun-yellowed field.

Harvest time in Iowa?

No, in Santa Ana.

What's more, the field isn't on a prairie--it's at a juvenile court school. And these aren't get-up-at-the-crack-of-dawn farmers. They're teen-agers off the streets of Orange County.

The youths, ages 15 to 18, learn about gardening through the Horticulture/Agriculture Cooperative Program at Rio Contiguo School, located at the Youth Guidance Center in Santa Ana.

By growing cucumbers and flowers, the youths learn discipline, time management and teamwork that can ready them for the job market, organizers said.

"Unfortunately, many kids in trouble end up in (California) Youth Authority or prison," said teacher Larry Coonradt. "Hopefully this program will intervene and help a few stay out."

Coonradt calls the selected students out of their fourth-period classes each Thursday to work in the garden. After finishing projects such as planting, mulching and building flower boxes on the 7,680-square-foot mini-farm, the students return to class.

The idea sprouted from Coonradt's talks with May Hu, an adviser from the University of California Cooperative Extension 4-H program, who also supervises the youths.

The county Department of Education, Probation Department and other groups oversee the project, while commercial plant nurseries and lumber firms donate supplies, Hu said.

The project may soon expand to include a greenhouse, fruit orchard and landscaping around the school, as well as community service, all of which can be therapeutic, said Janelle Wiley of Newport Beach, one of the project's adult volunteers.

Such activity "can be used not only to help people who are physically disabled, but also people who are emotionally stuck," said Wiley, who is studying horticultural therapy at Cal Poly Pomona.

Some of the youths who volunteered for the project are students like Rosie, a 16-year-old who has not missed a day since the garden was planted in June.

Coonradt said Rosie is learning time-management skills to plan an upcoming corn festival.

But Thursday was a "muscle" day for Rosie. "Whew," she sighed, wiping sweat from beneath her curly brown hair while hammering stakes around a prospective garden patch.

"She came out here to work . . . (even) when some of the boys thought it was too hot," Coonradt said.

Other youths, like 15-year-old Enrique, live at the school site. A judge sent him there for nine months. He accidentally killed a friend while playing with a gun.

Enrique weaved his small frame through the plants, picking corn ears at a quick clip before stopping to shake debris from his hair.

"Ack, I've been pollinated," Enrique said. Another boy bopped him on the head, playfully.

Like most teen-agers, they tease, argue and play games. But some also have a history of mistakes or crime. Some are gang members, others have records of theft or assault. One youth was arrested seven times for drugs. Because of their offenses, the youths' last names aren't used.

Russell, 16, said he attends the day school to catch up on class credits.

"This is what's keeping me coming to school," Russell said, kneeling in the dirt to lay borders around vegetable plots.

After the produce is ready to pick, he takes it to his mother in Santa Ana.

Coonradt said an unexpected benefit of the program is that parents see the fruits, or vegetables, of their children's labor. "For the kids, it's like bringing home an 'A' on a paper," Coonradt said.

Teamwork also develops among youths who might otherwise have been enemies, Coonradt said.

After the harvest, the teen-agers stood side-by-side around a wheelbarrow.

Together, they shucked dozens of ears of corn--when they weren't curling the leaves, tossing them on each other and giggling.

With a thwack! Enrique knocked a stem off a corn cob and shucked it with a practiced hand. "In Mexico, I once (harvested) a whole field by myself," the boy said.

His family raised corn, watermelons and other fruit on a farm before moving to Orange County, Enrique said. But his father never developed a liking for California and returned south.

Enrique said it's just as well. In Mexico, his father protested when Enrique wanted to go to school. " 'You should work,' " Enrique remembered his father saying.

And he did work, he said, doing odd jobs that kept him busy.

But here, he turned to friends in the wrong crowd. "I had friends who were doing drugs," Enrique said.

Then came the Juvenile Court school.

"I didn't know how much I liked my mom until I wasn't around her for nine months," he said, laughing. "Yeah, you should see him on visiting days when his mom visits," affirmed his friend Paul. "He gets all excited."

The pair's friendship is surprising, since there were days when Paul--a former skinhead--didn't speak to teen-agers of other ethnicities. Credit the school and garden project, Paul said.

Probation officers once saw Paul standing alone in the garden, picking bugs off the plants, so they asked him to help out, he said. He's no stranger to plants, because he used to ditch school to pick strawberries in fields near his home.

But now, he said, he's turned his life around.

With his school stint ending soon, Paul plans to study to become a nurse.

Unlike Paul, Enrique said he isn't sure what he wants to do when he leaves the school.

"I don't know how to say 'thank you' (enough) to everybody," Enrique said. "The garden was fun."

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