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Empowering Immigrant Youth: Morrison's Garden Therapy

in our own words youth grow

Youth Grow has partnered with Morrison Child and Family Services’ Immigrant Youth Service program to offer a weekly gardening program. Morrison provides mental health and substance use recovery services for approximately 7,000 youth and families annually throughout Oregon. In 2009, Morrison partnered with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to provide residential and unification services for youth, aged 13-17, who have crossed the US border without their parents or guardians. The ORR places unaccompanied, undocumented minors with Morrison. Morrison then provides these teens with legal, medical, and educational resources, with the goal of uniting them with family or other guardians as soon as possible, and in the meantime, the highest priority is keeping them safe. For more information, visit Morrison’s website.

Morrison originally reached out to Youth Grow to help maintain their patio garden and facilitate garden programming similar to what Youth Grow does in schools. Like all Youth Grow programming, Growing Gardens aims to use the garden as a space to reinforce the message that the teens at Morrison are deserving of care and respect. 

“They aren’t really classes, it’s sharing moments,” Isabel Cruz, the Garden Educator at Morrison, said. “I call it ‘healing in the garden.’”

Isabel aims to cultivate an environment where teens can bring their whole selves, exploring curiosities and connecting to the environment, with the understanding that they know how to best utilize the time and space to create the desired experience. The programming is built around what the teens express interest in and how they would like to spend their time, and individuals are encouraged to do things differently from the rest of the group as they see fit, along with sharing their own passions and experiences.

The goal is to support the teens in using the garden as a healing space, which carries different meanings for all individuals. Isabel likes to emphasize growing food as a lifestyle. Much of the time is spent on cultivating mindfulness, connecting to traditional foods and plants, and exploring ways to care for one’s emotional and physical health, rather than on science lessons or practicing technical gardening skills. “If you work in the garden, it will be beautiful,” Isabel said. “And if you are careful in your mind garden, it will be okay. If you put love into the garden, your body will feel it.”

Usually, the day begins with a garden lesson, covering topics such as the health benefits of different vegetables or sustainable growing practices. Then, Isabel leads the group through mindfulness exercises and activities in the garden, and the day ends with cooking together and sharing a meal. Ingredients are sources from the garden when possible. Past projects have included quesadillas garnished with homegrown herbs, fried squash blossoms, and pesto with garden greens.

Many teens at Morrison, and many people in the wider world, have had negative experiences working in agriculture and for them, gardening does not serve a healing and restorative role. Youth Grow does not expect or ask these teens, or anyone for whom growing things is a harmful practice, to participate in gardening activities. 

Growing Gardens believes in learning the stories behind where our food comes from, stories that often include exploitation and injustice. While gardening can be a way to reclaim power, create community, and cultivate holistic health, this requires a commitment to systemic change in a food system currently built on devaluing humanity.

At Morrison, Youth Grow aims to create a space where teens’ humanity and lived experiences are honored, and to meet them wherever they are to offer connection and support. For some people, this might mean meditating in the garden and tending to plants as an act of love, and for others, this might mean tasting food or painting or spending time with peers. Growing Gardens believes that small acts of caring for oneself and cultivating community can have enormous impacts, and strives to help create environments where such practices are celebrated and nurtured.

 “Gardening can heal yourself, your family, the earth, your community,” Isabel said. “We have hurt the Earth for many years, and with this activity we are healing.”

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