- Associated Press - Sunday, May 11, 2014

PINE BLUFF, Ark. (AP) - Many of the women at the Southeast Arkansas Community Correction Center expressed skepticism when they first laid eyes on a shipment of what appeared to be nothing more than twigs.

“They were just these spindly, little Charlie Brown things,” Dina Tyler, a deputy director for the Department of Community Correction, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (http://bit.ly/1kXFxpL).

“They stunk,” said Sunny Spicer, a 29-year-old parole violator who wasn’t impressed at all by her first glimpse of Knock Out roses. “I didn’t want to touch them.”

But in early March, Spicer found herself mixing soil and tending to the tiny roots. She was one of 40 women participating in the center’s new horticulture program, which teaches parole violators how to garden, landscape and mow.

The idea behind the program is to equip them with skills that will translate into jobs in the free world, explained Scott Simmons, who is an instructor at Riverside Vocational Technical School.

Riverside offers classes and training for Arkansas’ incarcerated population. There already are several horticulture programs at state prisons.

But this one is a first for the Southeast Arkansas Community Correction Center, hence the women’s cynicism.

For two months, they mixed soil from two large piles and misted plants with water. They learned about fertilizer. But the roses still didn’t look like much.

“Everybody was like, ‘We’re doing this for nothing,’” Spicer said with a laugh.

In time, though, the plants flourished. Then Spicer and the others had to use long hoses to water the soil in each plant’s bucket. It took nearly two hours to tend to 2,203 plants.

But the women no longer minded. Their roses were not only surviving but thriving. This growth motivated the parolees to get even more involved in the project. They were now invested.

On weekends, the women fretted over their plants, nagging Sgt. Juliet Jackson constantly: “We’ve got to water, we’ve got to water.”

Jackson would reassure them. “I promise, we’ll go out there.”

In an essay about the program, Spicer wrote: “The impact it had on our unit was profound. Let’s face it, 42 women living together is nearly impossible at times. We all come from different backgrounds, suffer from different addictions. Some even have stories of struggle and pure sadness.

“While we were knee deep in bulbs and toting wheelbarrows full of soil, I was lucky enough to witness a beautiful group of women … not convicts. We sang together, laughed together, complained together and even got in trouble together a time or two, but we got it done.”

And then one day, there were blooms.

Spicer cried. She had done it. They had done it. Here was tangible evidence of their success.

They weren’t just inmates or addicts. They were gardeners — women who took bare roots and nurtured them into rosebushes.

“We created this. And it’s beautiful,” she explained.

Last Tuesday, the correction center held a dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony.

As a choir sang, the women knelt and posed for photos, surrounded by pink blooms. Several wiped their eyes.

“We pulled together to get this done,” Faith Randolph said. “We made new life.”

The roses will be sold to nurseries and landscapers, Simmons said. Next spring, he hopes to double their inventory.

“This is how we get different results,” Tyler said of the new program. “The key here is meaningful. They are doing something where they can see the progress. I think there’s a lot to be said for a person needing to have something that depends on them.”

In her essay, Spicer wrote: “We grew together, just as I hope these roses grow as a reminder that with each new experience, we grow.

“No one can go back and make a brand-new beginning, but anyone can start from now and make a brand-new ending. I feel blessed to have been trusted with something of such importance, but even more blessed to have met these strong and beautiful ladies I’m learning from.”

___

Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.arkansasonline.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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