Avery D. Niles, state Department of Juvenile Justice commissioner, said he's looking forward to fresh dill, mint and rosemary, all herbs growing in the new aquaponics garden at the Elbert Shaw Regional Youth Detention Center in Dalton.
The department held a ribbon-cutting ceremony recently for the aquaponics garden, the first at a youth detention center in Georgia. The garden, which includes a 600-gallon goldfish tank and vegetables growing inside a sump tank, will be a part of the educational curriculum at the youth detention center.
"The aquaponic garden will be an efficient farming system where the presence of marine life will help grow vegetables through a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics," a press release states. "Once fully operational, the Department of Juvenile Justice will integrate the maintenance of the garden into the facility’s school curriculum to educate youth on fish and plant life development."
A portion of the garden was funded by a $2,000 grant from the Georgia Shape School Physical Activity and Nutrition Grant Program. Georgia Shape is a statewide effort involving multiple agencies and community organizations to combat childhood obesity. The funding is intended to "empower schools to implement activities that promote lifelong healthy behaviors."
The total cost of the garden was $3,400. Christian Heritage School donated the rest of the funding, Glenn Allen, communications director for the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, said. Students from Christian Heritage School's aquaponics class also helped with the garden.
Niles said the youth detention center was fortunate to have the students from Christian Heritage help with the garden. Sophomores Isabella Parks, Yuli Uriostegui and Kensly Wooten and freshman Canaan Barrett worked on the garden.
"We've been coming here bringing supplies to get fish in the pool and plants planted," Wooten said. "It's been a good experience."
Christian Heritage aquaponics coordinator Anna Verhoeff said she's proud of the students.
"They did a wonderful job and I feel very blessed to be a part of this project," she said.
Niles said it says a lot about the students that they took time to "help shape the lives of kids so they can be better when they leave here."
"If it takes an aquaponic system to form the life of a troubled youth, then it's money well spent," he said. "I’m indebted to Christian Heritage for creating an avenue of opportunity. When opportunity meets a challenge, that is where we make a difference."
The Elbert Shaw Regional Youth Detention Center houses males and females from Catoosa, Dade, Fannin, Gilmer, Murray, Pickens and Whitfield counties. Formerly the Dalton Regional Youth Detention Center, the center was named in honor of Elbert Shaw, who began volunteering at the center in 1976, in 2007. Shaw passed away in 2013.
"To come here on the grounds (of the youth detention center), I'm reminded of how Mr. Shaw dedicated his life to this facility, the community and the kids who visit," Niles said. "It takes a person of his character and commitment to give back to the kids who deserve it."
Niles said the garden project was funded without any state dollars.
"We are going to provide tools, vegetation and everything for a state-operated facility," he said.
Gary Black, Georgia's agriculture commissioner, also spoke during the ceremony and said it's an exciting time.
"Any time you can give students an opportunity, nothing is more important or enjoyable," he said. "It's important for students to have an opportunity for applied learning. I think that's what this garden is going to do for them."
Black said he believes some of the greatest needs for young people are critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.
"I always believed agriculture provides a great atmosphere for those types of things to take place because it’s practical," he said. "People are very interested to know where their food comes from. I believe this really does provide them a great opportunity."
Black said wherever food comes from there is a family responsible for growing it.
"I rarely run into a student today who's not fascinated about where their food actually came from," he said. "Most students now are several generations away from a farm. A light seems to come on when they see what took place to get it."
State Sen. Chuck Payne, R-Dalton, who previously worked as a probation/parole specialist at the youth detention center and who worked for the Department of Juvenile Justice for 30 years, said, "Every kid has value." Payne said that's the thing he learned most while working for the Department of Juvenile Justice.
"The goal is to not unteach the bad things they’ve learned in their life, but to give them new horizons that they can cling to," he said.
Payne said it's a "gift" when youth he worked with at the detention center approach him in public with their wife and children.
"I never forgot the words you said, thank you for taking that opportunity," one man said to him.
Payne urged those in the audience to never forget that "every child is valuable."
"You're making an impact when you don't realize it," he said. "With this opportunity that we're giving kids, the new horizons we are giving kids with this aquaponics center, we're expanding horizons and we're making a difference in the world."
Niles said he's looking forward to the impact the garden will have on the youth at the detention center.
"The razor wire (fence) is not impacting their livelihood or holding them back from experimenting with soil," he said. "We as a group of concerned people have nothing to do with how our kids got to us, but we have everything to do with how they leave."