Guest Columnists

The garden bridge of healing

'Comes a time when the blind man takes your hand, says, 'Don't you see?' - Robert Hunter

Scott Koepke
Scott Koepke

Do you believe that criminals can be reformed? I do. Others don’t. That’s a philosophical divide that may never be reconciled.

A profound realization hit me this summer. I was driving from the prison farm to the poor farm, and I realized I was on a bridge connecting these two worlds, a bridge I hadn’t seen before. It was there all along. I just hadn’t been paying close enough attention. I hadn’t been listening.

When I stopped to listen more and talk less (2 ears + 1 mouth = listen more than you talk! — Mark Twain), I started to hear and understand peoples’ stories more clearly. How, for many, many cultural, physiological, psychological, social and economic reasons, choices lead to choices, which lead to more choices leading at times to: food insecurity and incarceration. These two groups are often the same group.

Judgment is easy. Rehabilitation is hard. I choose hard. Because I would want the same second chances for me. Any of us could be in that food pantry line. Any of us could be locked up.

At Grow: Johnson County, a two-acre hunger relief farm in Iowa City on the site of the old county poor farm where I am blessed to direct educational programming, we have grown and given over 10,000 pounds of fresh nutrition to food pantries in Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty since April. We don’t just give food to people in need, we also them how to grow it themselves. And not just growing fruits and veggies, but growing life skills: balance, respect, patience, nurturance, resilience, healthy choices, trust, humility, listening and gratitude. I call it Nurturance Transference.

Simply put, Gardening Is Therapy. Researchers smarter than I affirm that it helps reduce both nutritional deficits and recidivism. I would even suggest it can build common ground between our bitterly divided political parties. It can also create jobs. I’m trying to grow growers.

When we are healthier eaters, we are healthier thinkers.

It’s the children that drive me the most to get out of bed every morning and evolve this outreach. When I see a hungry child, right here in our own backyard, my heart breaks. Yours should too. It’s inexcusable. We’re better than that. Our priorities, values and roles are healthier than that.

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And when I volunteer as a Garden Educator at both the Linn County Juvenile Detention Center and Oakdale Prison, that’s yet another bridge that I didn’t see immediately, but am trusting my heart to build. As one of the men on the farm crew at Oakdale told me recently, “Scott, you are trying to help prevent those kids in detention from winding up here later.” He’s right. How could I not try?

Gardening isn’t a magic answer to world peace, but it sure as heck helps.

That’s all I can ultimately ask of any of us: Are you helping or hurting? I would recommend to curriculum developers that “How To Be A Good Person 101” should be a mandatory class. It’s just as vital as learning how to solve for X, know the parts of a cell, or write a coherent essay.

I always encourage my students to imagine the year 2070. I won’t be here then, but they likely will be. What world are we giving the children yet to be born 50-plus years from now? Cliché or not, it is our moral responsibility to leave the planet better than when we arrived, and to acknowledge individual choices that create collective consequences.

My sister, Amy, says this phrase should be on my T-shirt: “When society gives up on someone, that’s who I want in my garden.” That’s restorative justice. AbSOILutely.

• Scott Koepke is the Education Director of Grow: Johnson County, and is a volunteer at local correctional facilities. He serves on the board of directors of the Free Lunch Program.

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