Natalie's Everyday Heroes: Master Gardeners volunteer at Racine Youthful Offender Correctional Facility

NOW: Natalie’s Everyday Heroes: Master Gardeners volunteer at Racine Youthful Offender Correctional Facility

RACINE, Wis. (CBS 58) -- A powerful partnership is growing in an unlikely place. Master Gardeners started volunteering their time inside the Racine Youthful Offender Correctional Facility in 2019.

The food grown provides fresh produce for the kitchen, and the young men on the crew get something special, too.

Behind the high walls and barbed wire fences at the facility, something is growing.

"It gives them a sense of hope and purpose," said yard guard Gary Grymkoski.

Flowers are an unexpected pop of color surrounded by concrete, and all around the yard, vegetables are popping up through the soil.

"Beans grow fast," said Linda Graeper, looking over the plants. "The spinach looks good.

Each week, Graeper, a master gardener, comes into this medium security facility to help a team of young offenders care for the crops.

They do the day-to-day stuff," she said. What she does -- "Mostly mentoring. You noticed they had a lot of questions."

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections didn't let us ask the men on the crew any questions, but we got to watch as they grilled Graeper - eager to learn about growing.

"Some of them have never gardened before. I'm hoping that this is something they are learning, and they understand the concept of how good it is to be a gardener," she explained.

"They said that they feel like they're back in nature," Grymkoski added.

Grymkoski selected the team of eight who tends to the garden.

"If they show an interest, and they're excited, that's what I look for," he said.

The young men, between 18 and 24, are serving time for a variety of reasons.

"There's a plethora of different offenses, it could be from violent crimes to theft and drugs," he said. 

But what Graeper sees are eager learners.

"Ok, next garden," she said as they walked through the yard.

She wants them to take the skills they gain here with them when they leave.

"If they want to get into landscaping or work at a nursery, they really would have an advantage because they have this background," she said.

The youthful offender correctional facility partners job training with other education.

"They basically go to school, they're basically -- they get their GED and then there's college courses," Grymkoski said.

Giving the young men space to grow, too.

"Hopefully, you know, I'm just encouraging them to do something that they should enjoy," Graeper said. 

The fresh vegetables from these gardens will all go inside to the facility's kitchen.

"Cabbage, peas, carrots, onions, beans, green beans," Grymkoski said. "And they're like, 'hey, I grew that,' so, they take ownership."

The volunteer-led program started in 2019, and like the gardens, has bloomed since then. 

"When I said earlier to them that this was the best garden ever and they were the best group, I was sincerely truthful," Graeper said.

For Graeper-- who also volunteers her gardening skills with the Racine County Food Bank and Garden of Giving-- it's a chance to share her passion.

"I grew up on a farm. And my mother always had a huge garden. I guess that's kind of where it started, and it just kind of stayed with me," she explained.

Planting her knowledge where she can see it grow. 

"They really enjoy it, and as you can see, they're awesome," Grymkoski said with pride.

Hopefully I'm doing something good for the Racine community. Gardening is my thing," Graeper said.

If you'd like to nominate an Everyday Hero, send Natalie a message at [email protected].

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