Sensory Gardens to Promote Healing at Juvenile Facilities

Chatham designs
Monday, January 8, 2018 - 4:26pm

According to the 18th century English poet Alfred Austin, “To nurture a garden is to feed not just the body, but the soul.” With that in mind, Juvenile Justice Health Services has initiated a unique partnership with N.C. State University’s Department of Horticultural Sciences to design and install sensory gardens within the recreation yards on two juvenile facilities in North Carolina.

Dr. Natasha Donnelly, assistant manager of Juvenile Health Services, is the brainchild behind the project that will bring specially designed natural areas – sensory gardens – to Chatham Youth Development Center in Siler City and Cumberland Juvenile Detention Center in Fayetteville. Sensory gardens include plants and design elements that will provide experiences for heightened sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste.

Studies suggest that being able to see trees and flowers reduces agitation and aggression, and promotes healing. Donnelly envisions the gardens as a place where staff can more easily initiate healthy conversations with children in secure custody, and “a starting place for recovery, renewal and (to relearn) social skills for a healthier and more productive life.” These on-site gardens could also help the children to start developing skills working in the garden that can help them as they return to their communities.

Last summer, Donnelly worked with Anne Spafford, associate professor of Landscape Design at N.C. State University, who agreed to incorporate the Juvenile Justice project into the curriculum of her fall Horticulture Planting Design class. The NCSU students researched sensory/therapeutic/healing gardens; visited the locations for the proposed gardens; received input from health experts, Juvenile Justice staff and the youth detained at the facilities; and then developed individual designs for the facilities based on this information, with an understanding that maintaining safety and security at the facilities was crucial. The individual designs incorporated elements found in landscape designs provided by the youths at the pilot sites.

In November Spafford’s students presented their completed designs to Juvenile Justice’s leadership team and Central Office staff for feedback. Students in the Juvenile Justice facilities viewed the presentations on WebEx. Juvenile Justice staff provided individualized feedback on the elements of each design, to inform the final design choices this month by Spafford and Donnelly.

Once final designs are in place, NCSU students and volunteers will help install the centers’ sensory gardens. Juvenile Justice officials look for this to occur as soon as possible in the coming year.

“We have buy-in across the board: everyone involved is incredibly excited and full of HOPE--so it's important for momentum continue and for the projects to move forward,” said Spafford. “The immediate and long-term profound impacts these gardens will have on these traumatized youths are enormous.”

Diana Kees, public relations manager