“When is this going to be over?” and “how long do we have to be here?” were often the first words out of these adolescents’ mouths. I often feel the urge to remind them that we are doing them a favor by giving them a meaningful project to fulfill their probation requirement. I couldn’t help but want to force them into the realizing the importance of growing food in this garden, as it would be given to those who are hungry and can’t afford fresh vegetables. But of course, I know after years of working with these kids that trying to get them to understand what I think is important will only cause them to become more committed to their opposing viewpoint. So I sit back and try to make jokes about how much fun it looks like they are having and how I am sure there is nothing else they would rather do at 8am on a Saturday morning.
On this particularly cold and overcast morning, I notice a young man who seemed more than annoyed about being in the garden. As we begin explaining the rules of the garden, such as no cursing and no smoking, he whispers, “I don’t give a #!*&” and proceeds to light a cigarette. If only he knew how typical it was to be given a rule and then defy it. I can tell he believes that he is doing something unique and specific to him. This seems to be the greatest impetus for oppositional behavior – believing that being oppositional is a unique aspect of one’s character. I don’t blame him, as it is not easy for anyone to establish a genuine character, especially during adolescence. Some teenagers take on the academic, athletic and/or artistic character as they attempt to discover who they are. Unfortunately, if none of these character-types have been modeled or enforced in their environments, or if they have felt too much pressure to conform to one of these character-types, adolescents will often find an identity by opposing social norms.
So here is our young adolescent male smoking a cigarette and cursing just after being asked to refrain from these behaviors. The volunteer begins speaking to him in a cheery bright voice, “Tyson, can you please put that out so we don’t have to send you home?” Good try, but I know this attempt will only be met with further opposition. Meeting an irritated tired affect with a cheery bright affect will usually only cause a greater discrepancy in attitudes. I immediately jump in with my “I could care less voice,” and say “look Tyson, do whatever you want, we can’t stop you from smoking and we can’t stop you from cursing under your breath. We are heading to grow food for people who are starving at this very moment that we are wasting time talking about your cigarette. I know you are an intelligent young man and you will decide what is right for you…By the way…I was really hoping that I could sign off on a FULL day of community service hours for everyone to bring back to their probation officers, but if you choose differently, I can respect that.”
As we break into groups, hanging heads and dragging feet follow the cheery volunteers. Once they hit the garden shed and put a wheelbarrow in one kid’s hand and a shovel in another kid’s hand, the heads begin to rise and speak words such as, “can I have the blue shovel,” and “does this food really go to hungry people?” After digging in the dirt and planting a few seeds, laughter begins to explode spontaneously from these heads now being held high. Tyson decides to join us, his hands stuffed deep in the pockets of his sagging pants as he is walking around the garden looking over the shoulders of our newly converted gardeners. He then kneels down next to a male volunteer and says, “my grandfather had a garden and I would help him sometimes. We grew tomatoes.” Thank goodness the volunteer is savvy enough to know that this is an opening to bring Tyson into the experience and he responds, “can you help that group over there, they are trying to plant tomatoes?” The volunteer leans in closer to Tyson and whispers, “between you and me, I don’t think they know what they are doing.” Tyson’s chest puffs up as he nods silently and walks swiftly to the tomato-planting group. He immediately kneels beside the tomato bed with the others and begins to explain how deep the holes will need to be for the tomato sprouts to grow properly.
By the end of the day we definitely have a couple dragging sets of feet; however, the trepidation is due to exhaustion from playing in the garden all day rather than resistance. Of course, Tyson, the one who resisted the most at the start of the day, is now hesitant to put the shovel down and asks if he can bring his cousin with him next weekend to the garden. This community service project not only gave the youths a feeling of confidence while they served their community, but it simultaneously provided these kids with some good clean fun and taught them a life-skill.
At the Create A Path Program, the group of participants are given $4000 to develop and implement a community service project that has the potential of serving their community long-term. Through the development and implementation of this project, the participants learn entrepreneurial skills and organically practice working collaboratively as a team to improve their community. In addition, they earn court-mandated community service hours and have a good time while doing it!by