Giving back through gardening

During the fall harvest, food pantries across the state received more than 50 tons of produce from an unlikely source.

By Elizabeth Trovall (Jefferson City)

Algoa Correctional Facility sits atop a large hill overlooking brown Missouri countryside.  Men in baggy brown jackets saunter within the confines of a tall chain-link fence. The wind whips through the crisp air and not a single cloud appears in the cerulean sky.

It’s grayer inside. Billy McCollum is serving a seven year sentence.

“Asked if I could help you know, I seen everyone out there helpin’ and it’s for a good cause, people without stuff, so I figured I’d help,” he said.

Last spring McCollum started spending two and a half hours every day working outside in the Algoa outdoor garden. Gardens like Algoa’s are now in all but one of the prisons across the state.  In the program offenders volunteer to work on gardens within their correctional facilities. All of the produce is donated to local food banks. This is the first year of the program at Algoa.

“I was there from the very first part of it," said McCollum.  "From the tillin' in the ground to the plantin', dealin’ with it every day… takin' it out.”

It was McCollum’s first time growing produce and now he said he could be developing a green thumb.

“Whenever I get out might go and start myself one.”

Though this program benefits the shelters that receive the donated produce, working in the gardens is also a form of therapy for offenders. Cultivating hobbies is just one way the gardens benefit those behind bars. Matthew Wichrowski  is the senior horticultural therapist at the New York University Medical Center. He said cultivating hobby is just one of the benefits offenders get from working in gardens.

"It’s going to mitigate the stress a little bit, it’s going to help improve mood, it will also allow for the development of appropriate socialization techniques and hobby interests," he said. "So maybe instead they take up gardening instead of something that might be a little illicit."

Some of the other offenders who helped with the new Algoa garden brought years of expertise to the table. John Dobbs said he’s worked with gardens for a while.

“My dad and me raised a garden ever since I was little. It was pretty much all my life.” 

Dobbs said his favorite part is just spending time in the garden, because gardening brings him back to one place.

"Home. I think about home. That’s nice.”

Although this was Algoa’s first garden, they produced 1600 lbs. of fruits and veggies this year.