It is not a frequent sight — the sentencing judge, the youthful offender and the offender’s family all wearing smiles in the courtroom where justice was handed down against them.
But, that wording is not entirely correct.
In these cases, justice was handed down for them.
The third class of the Junior Master Gardener’s program graduated Tuesday night at the Bradley County Juvenile Court.
Twelve offenders became part of the 42 who have gone through this alternative program designed to take young people who have found trouble in their lives and turn it into a situation where they can become constructive citizens.
“You can see how wonderful this is,” said Juvenile Court Director Terry Gallaher. “It’s almost like a piece of art.”
His description came as the youth stood with pride showing the fruits of their labor over the last 12 weeks.
These were not young people anyone would be afraid of at first sight.
Clean-cut, polite and showing signs of maturity have masked the problems of these young people.
“These kids are proud. It gives them self-esteem and a feeling of accomplishment,” Gallaher said. “When they start getting their hands dirty and working beside an adult, it builds relationships. That’s one of the major problems with kids in the court system. Most come from broken homes, are angry and have a lot of issues. The Master Gardening program provides leadership and opportunities.”
Gallaher said the youth who have completed their time with the program could come back and help with others.
He said there are often behavioral problems with youth like these.
“These kids were all engaged and every time I ever looked in the classroom,” Gallaher said, “they just seemed so focused and enjoying it. They are getting a good start as a teenager they will use the rest of their lives.”
He said it “exceeds anything we’ve ever done for community service,” and most of the youth will come out of the court system, because successfully participating in the program will meet the criteria to have them released from their probative restrictions.
“Most will have their cases closed and their cases expunged to allow them to get a fresh start,” Gallaher said.
He added when a youth is able to have success and complete projects such as the garden program, there is a greater chance they will not be repeat offenders.
Deborah Flower, a Master Gardener who chairs the program, said the youth come in with a lot of baggage.
“We give them the one-on-one time and they talk,” Flower said. “We see the personalities come out. We see leadership come out and that to me is wonderful.”
She said Master Gardeners in other areas are asking how they can do the same things with their juvenile courts.
There are more than a dozen Master Gardener teachers who volunteer their time for the program.
“That’s the type of community we live in,” Gallaher said. “We have people who really care.”
Both say they have seen a special look on some of the youth that tells them the program is working.
“The lights come on, the eyes sparkle and it’s like, ‘Wow,’” Flower said. “You can literally see the difference in them.”
Juvenile Judge Daniel Swafford said having a program like the Master Gardener class makes what can be a very difficult job for him much easier by having such an option he can use.
It was Swafford who got the idea after hearing about a Master Gardener program at a Ruritan meeting.
“Once they spoke, it was like a light bulb came on for me,” Swafford said. “I said please come over, and they’ve loved it and we’ve loved it and the children have benefitted from it.”
He said all through state law and statutes dealing with juvenile offenders the word “rehabilitate” is used over and over again.
“You always want to keep hope for children, and always want to keep resources to help children,” Swafford said. “Terry and the whole juvenile staff has done a wonderful job.”
He said the punishment can be punitive when it calls for harsher tactics.
“But, we want to provide resources to show these children that there is an opportunity for them and there is a better way and a better life,” Swafford said.
The looks on the faces of Tuesday’s graduates, the faces of their families and the faces of those who worked to get them to the achievement for which they were recognized suggests those youth may have found that better way.
“You can see most of them standing there proud with their accomplishments,” Gallaher said. “Their families are proud and the whole community should be proud of them.”