Sierra Girls Center Garden Club growing life skills for troubled teens
Tucked away at the foot of Hood Mountain, the Sierra Girls Center Garden enters its fourth growing season this month. Beginning April 16, strawberries, flowers, herbs, and heirloom tomato and other vegetable starts will be available for sale as the garden opens its gate to the public on Saturday mornings from 9 to 11 a.m.
Although its 17 fruit trees, two green houses, three bee hives and numerous garden beds and trellises produce a wonderful bounty, the real mission of the -acre garden – and the 40 plus volunteers who help tend it – is to provide educational and mentoring activities for the girls who live at the Sierra Girls Center, a residential program for teenage girls, ranging in age from 12 to 18, who have entered the juvenile justice system.
In addition to the garden, the volunteers who make up the Sierra Girls Center Garden Club also provide a culinary skills program, arts and crafts activities, and special outings for the Center’s residents, a maximum of 12 girls in stints of six to nine months at a time.
“These girls were victims before they were perpetrators,” said Caroline Keller, the club’s volunteer coordinator and long-time champion of the program. With backgrounds that range from involvement in drugs, gangs, or human trafficking, most of the girls have never spent time in a garden or know the difference between a teaspoon and a tablespoon, said Keller. The activities the volunteers provide are aimed at developing healthier skills and abilities, to foster a more positive future once the girls leave the center. “Its unconscionable to incarcerate these girls and not help them to be successful when they get out,” said Keller. The impact spreads in a way not necessarily true for men. “When you affect a girl’s life you not only affect her, but her children. It’s important to address the needs of young women, especially those disadvantaged young women.”
When a girl learns how to plant, harvest and prepare fresh food, or plan, budget and shop for a special dinner she will host, she is developing positive skills that will carry over to the real world, said Keller. Through the sale of produce and prepared goods at the garden, and things like spaghetti feeds and a holiday arts and crafts fair, the activities program, entirely volunteer-run, is also entirely self-sufficient, raising enough funds to sustain the garden, kitchen, and art activities, provide four educational field trips a year, and even provide scholarships of up to $500 each for graduating girls.
Keller herself was adopted and wonders what might have happened if she hadn’t lived with such a supportive family who took care of her and encouraged her to go to school. “In society today where we have so much, it deeply, deeply troubles me that there are girls who still don’t have that opportunity,” said Keller.
Keller, at 78, has been involved in the activities at Sierra Girls Center since their inception. After more than four decades in education, as a teacher, counselor and principal in the Santa Cruz area, Keller “retired” to Oakmont and became involved with Valley of the Moon Rotary Club, which had built and donated a 14x20-foot shed to what was then called the Sierra Youth Center (SYC) in 2002. At that time, the SYC had no vocational activities for the girls it served, although its program for boys at the Probation Camp in Forestville had several. Seeking equal opportunities, Keller set about to change that. Rotary funded garden fencing, new gates, equipment and a culinary teacher for the girls. Eventually the garden and culinary program sprang to life. Then, budget cuts hit the county and in 2013 SYC was shuttered. The garden was abandoned to the weeds, but Keller did not give up. When the nonprofit Paradise Oaks Youth Services stepped in to continue SYC operations as Sierra Girls Center, Keller and a crew of Rotary, Oakmont community garden volunteers and others were there to bring the garden and the culinary program back. The Sierra Girls Center Garden Club has been in operation ever since.
Because of her commitment to the Sierra Girls Center, Keller was recently named as one of “30 women you should know in Sonoma County” by the Press Democrat, but she attributes the real success of the Garden Club to the dedication of all the volunteers.
By joining the club, volunteers commit to working with the girls at least two hours per month – although many donate much more time – and pay $20 per year to participate. The garden is run like a community garden, with the girls getting first pick of the produce to prepare meals during the Tuesday evening culinary class. The rest goes up for sale to the public on Saturday mornings, along with baked goods and other prepared foods from the culinary kitchen. So that nothing goes to waste, anything that’s left gets donated to FISH in Sonoma.
When asked about things that have impacted her commitment to keeping the activities alive at the Sierra Girls Center, Keller said the memory of a girl who was her student when she was a middle school principal still haunts her. The girl, a sister of a close friend of Keller’s daughter, struggled in school, ended up becoming a prostitute in San Francisco and was killed when she was 26. “I think: ‘There were things we could have done at school to help. I know there were.’ Her legacy is some part of why I’m so passionate about this.”
In her experience as an educator Keller felt like the schools did a good job with the kids who had some sort of family support, but failed the kids who didn’t. “We have to do better as a society, we really do,” she said. “A program like this isn’t the whole answer, but it’s a piece.”
Some of the girls will go right back into the life they came from, for some it doesn’t make a difference, acknowledged Keller. But then there are other stories of success, like one 16-year-old girl with a four-year-old son and both her parents and her boyfriend in prison. She went through the Sierra Girls Center program, she was able to graduate high school, and get her son back.
The Sierra Girls Center Garden opens its farm stand to the public April through November on Saturdays, 9-11 a.m. (winter) and 8:30-10:30 a.m. (summer). Produce, plant starts, and garden products for sale change seasonally. The garden can be reached by following the little red chili pepper signs at the corner of Sonoma Highway and Pythian Road. The Garden Club is always looking for new volunteers of all ages. Visit www.sierragarden.org for more information.
Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.