For more than six years, the Detroit Zoological Society’s Berman Academy for Humane Education has led a gardening program with Oakland County Children’s Village that helps to instill reverence and respect for wildlife and wild places with the 12-17-year-old boys residing there. Children’s Village provides a safe, structured environment for youth that includes secure detention, residential treatment and shelter care services. While there are approximately 16 to 20 teens that participate in the garden program at any given time, the resident population changes regularly, so we’ve had the opportunity to work with hundreds of boys through the course of this program.
The boys implement the garden from start to finish, and I work right alongside them with Claire Lannoye-Hall, a DZS curator of education. We incorporate a number of projects throughout the year, in addition to cultivating a fruitful harvest. A lot of emphasis is placed on how we can humanely interact with the wildlife that we find in and around the garden, which includes implementing measures that humanely deter wildlife from eating our cherished produce. For example, we’ve built a fence, made wind chimes out of discarded DVDs, and used cayenne pepper flakes to discourage the resident groundhog from nibbling on our plants. The young gardeners learn to avoid some conventional deterrents that are not humane, like predator urines for example, as the urine is often harvested from animals that reside on fur farms in deplorable conditions.
While this program mainly takes place in the summer months, we still visit the boys on a regular basis throughout the rest of the year. It’s important for us to have a consistent presence – for the boys to know that they can depend on us showing up. One of our favorite winter projects is making fleece toys for dogs that reside in local shelters. After the boys finish, I deliver the toys and take pictures of the dogs having fun with their new playthings. The boys take great delight in seeing the pictures and knowing they’ve brought some joy to these pups. Another project we’ve done for the past few years is making Valentine’s Day cards for pediatric patients at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, using pressed flowers from our garden. It’s quite heartwarming to see how thoughtful the boys are when crafting their messages and designing the cards. Our projects are often centered around being kind to others, as there’s research that shows when you’re kind to someone else, it helps to foster empathy within.
One of our favorite projects is our photography project in which the boys take pictures of the garden and surrounding area. It’s amazing to see them take a picture of a bee resting on a sunflower that they’ve planted from seed or a tiny tree frog climbing on the side of a raised bed that they made with their own hands. There’s a lot of delight and wonder that comes from observing nature from behind the lens of a camera.
As you can imagine, our garden program is always one of the highlights of my week. I look forward to see how it continues to unfold in years to come.
Lisa Forzley is the humane education manager for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Berman Academy for Humane Education.