Cumberland Garden Provides “Therapeutic” Assistance to Juveniles and Staff

Author: Jerry Higgins, Communications Officer

Over little more than a year, a basketball/volleyball court and dirt walking track at the Cumberland Juvenile Detention Center in Fayetteville was transformed into a mental and physical oasis for juveniles and facility staff. 

This “recreation area” is now a therapeutic garden with a beautiful painted mural representing diversity, unity and peace on the outside brick walls. The basketball court is painted deep blue with inspirational words around the court. There is a beautiful water feature toward the back of the yard along with trees, flower beds, raised garden beds, two pergolas with concrete pads, new picnic tables, park benches to sit and enjoy the outside beauty and listen to the relaxing sound of the water feature, and grass growing in open areas.

“If you look at the timing of this, in the middle of the pandemic, the inside air can be dangerous,” said Facility Director Gene Hallock. “What a perfect time to go outside and get some fresh air. It is great for staff and great for the kids. This garden is a blessing.”

About three years ago, former Assistant Manager of Juvenile Health Services Dr. Natasha Donnelly had an idea to create a sensory garden with plants and design elements that provided experiences for heightened sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste. She 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. Her students researched visited locations, received input from health experts, Juvenile Justice staff and detained youth, then developed individual designs with an understanding that maintaining safety and security at the facilities was crucial. 

“We spoke about general safety ideas … no trees by the fences. They incorporated in the design all aspects of the senses. It would be pleasant to touch, color and taste (like herbs or blueberry bushes),” said Dawn Thomas, the Juvenile Justice section’s Eastern Regional Psychological Services Coordinator who was recently recognized, along with Cumberland Cook Supervisor Tena Sonko, with the Raising the Bar Award for their work on the project. 

Studies have suggested that the ability to see trees and flowers reduces agitation and aggression, and promotes healing. Donnelly envisioned the gardens as a place where staff could easily initiate healthy conversations with children in secure custody, and be a starting place for recovery, renewal and (to relearn) social skills for a healthier and more productive life. The gardens could also help the children to start developing skills working in the garden that could help them as they returned to their communities.

The Cumberland design was approved but then came the difficult task of paying for it. Fundraisers were held, grants were procured to fund positions (part-time horticulturalist and art therapist) but it still came down to having resources to change the area into a therapeutic garden.

“The community really came together and helped,” Hallock said. “Local law enforcement took the time to come over and ripped out bushes and weeds. The Pine Needles Garden Club raised $1,000 and donated to us. The local Lowe’s Home Improvement center donated material and workers. Garden centers donated plants.”

Thomas, who was in charge of the project, added, “It took about a year to complete. A fundraiser helped pay for the water fountain. We had artists paint murals. It was a real community effort. Now it’s a lovely work in progress.”

The facility had the opportunity to show off the therapeutic garden on Oct. 1 to Deputy Secretary for Juvenile Justice William Lassiter and senior staff. The sense of pride radiated from staff and the youth as they showed off the beautiful flowers and fauna throughout the area, as well as the bright artwork in every corner (see photos here). The garden also brought back memories for Lassiter.

“Having grown up working on my parents’ plant farm and continuing to be an enthusiastic gardener today, I understand the therapeutic benefits of gardening,” Lassiter said. “I am so pleased that our youth will have the opportunity to experience these benefits at Cumberland Juvenile Detention Center, and I look forward to these gardens being constructed at more of our facilities in the future. I want to thank the staff, the community, local businesses and students who made this project possible.”   

Youth have had the opportunity to decorate the garden. Decorated pumpkins adorn the area in the fall and the garden can be decorated for the holidays when the time comes.

“It’s a great way to teach the kids how to make decisions,” Hallock said. “When the master gardener and staff work with the kids, they ask them where they should put the pumpkins and mums. Then we can ask them what made them put the mums and pumpkins in those areas. One kid said it’s what his grandma would’ve done. It helps them relate back to their families.

“I sat down with a youth from Robeson County. I could see he was in deep thought. I asked him what he was thinking about and if he wanted to share it. He said,’ I know I have to serve some time. I’m sitting here and looking at the painting of the sunshine on the wall, and it kind of tells me that I may be in the middle of the storm now, but sooner or later the  sun will come out and I’ll have better days.’

“He saw all the beauty in the garden. It was very powerful.”


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