Santa Rosa youth develop their careers and life skills in a neglected backyard

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When Curtis Short and his wife Patricia Seddon first saw the space where they were asked to help young adults with special needs and disabilities create a garden, they were appalled. The small fenced area was a tangle of weeds, with only a rose bush and several small fruit trees – plum, apricot and pomegranate – growing through the thick Bermuda grass.

Around it were parking lots, cracked, weedy asphalt, and maintenance and office buildings for schools in the city of Santa Rosa. The students, who were part of a multi-year program teaching independent living and working skills, had their classes in weathered old portable classrooms. The 10 students in teacher Melanie Charter’s class often ate lunch in the “garden”, taking turns sitting at the single picnic table.

Short and Seddon couldn’t do anything for the mood. But they thought they could help the students create an oasis amid the functional but derelict space at the end of Ridgway Avenue.

“Our youngest child moved to college on September 9, 2021,” Short said. “As empty nests in need of a new purpose in life, Pat and I were immediately struck by the sadness of the existing garden and its surroundings, and we almost instantly set out to build a wonderful new garden. “, did he declare.

Short, a certified arborist and landscape contractor, connected to Charter through a mutual friend who asked if he could help the teacher create a gardening program for her students.

The 18 to 22-year-olds, all former students of Ridgway, the district high school, are engaged in a variety of volunteer and apprenticeship jobs through the Community Transitions program, doing everything from food service to college of Sonoma State helping with a school child care program and volunteering with the Humane Society.

“With the support of one of three classroom staff, students participate in paid and volunteer work experiences,” Charter said. Along with this, they learn independent living skills like meal preparation, budgeting, home maintenance, and how to get around to shop or socialize.

“The goal is for students to leave the program with as much independence as possible and with resources and connections in the community to support them,” she said.

A gardening program could develop additional skills, like teamwork and basic garden maintenance, Charter said. There are currently 30 students in three classes who need extra support to bridge school and life and work in the community. Although much of their work takes place in the community, they have class time on their makeshift campus within sight of Santa Rosa High.

“We wanted to give them a chance to build a beautiful new environment in which they can be inspired and thrive,” Short said. “And it’s such a good program. These students can be in this program for four years. And it is individually adapted to whatever excites their enthusiasm. Pat and I had no idea something like this even existed in Santa Rosa public schools.

Plans and then waiting

Short sketched out a plan for the garden, and Seddon set about fundraising.

To start a gardening project, you need compost, mulch, plants, tools and related equipment. Several local retailers like Friedman’s Home Improvement participated. Mission Ace Hardware donated a new wheelbarrow and Prickett’s Nursery donated tools and equipment worth hundreds of dollars.

“I said we didn’t need that much, but they said, ‘Take it.’ They were incredibly generous and gave us a huge pile of seed,” Short said of locally owned Prickett’s.

He and Seddon began working with the students last September, planting daffodils and buttercups, which are just beginning to grow. But the school district halted work with the students until a long list of details could be ironed out.

So Short and Seddon worked alone through the fall and winter, prepping the area, digging up weeds, and installing a rock culvert, or rain garden, to catch runoff from the parking lot that had collected in the garden. . At the same time, they identified tasks that the students could easily do on their own, such as removing rocks and picking up sticks from the mulch to prepare it for spreading.

After more than four months, Short and Seddon now have the green light to work directly with students. They first encountered them on a sunny Wednesday in late January, digging and moving woodchips to what will, by summer’s end, be the bones of an ornamental flower garden.

“I love the outdoors, working in the garden and pulling weeds,” said Dixie Ireland. The 21-year-old Santa Rosa woman also works at the YMCA, at a Steele Lane Elementary daycare center and as a volunteer at the Sonoma County Humane Society as part of its Transitions training. But the garden makes a nice new addition to the mix of experiences.

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