Experience in work, and life, at Talmar Gardens

It was barely 10 a.m. Monday, July 18, supposedly the coolest day in a week that could see temperatures reach triple-digits, and the crew at Talmar Gardens and Horticultural Therapy Center, on Cromwell Bridge Road, was already feeling the effects of the heat.

Mark Fitch already needed to change his clothes, and Ronnie Hamilton held an empty Gatorade bottle in his hand as he wiped sweat off his brow with his hat.

But for the two teens, the experience gained this summer in the fields of Talmar Gardens, both social and work-related, will make the long, hot days more than worth it.

Fitch, 18; Hamilton, 19; and two other county teens are participating in this year's edition of the Summer Youth Employment Program, a Baltimore County government program that facilitates job opportunities for the county's special needs and at-risk youth.

Though the program is helping 124 teens this summer, the 2011 edition is smaller than previous years because of cutbacks in funding, primarily from the federal government.

Still, for those who have jobs though Summer Youth Employment, the program is a chance to gain some experience, self-esteem — and $8 an hour, for 30 hours a week.

Though they both qualify for the program because they are developmentally disabled, there's no painting the two Parkville teens with a broad brush.

Hamilton, with a purple hat low on his forehead, is gregarious, finding time to talk with other volunteers and staff members at every turn.

Brindley Fisher, managing director of Talmar Gardens, said that one of the most exciting parts of her summer has been watching Hamilton work with groups of other volunteers.

"Relating to people is a strength of his," Fisher said. "He can be put with a group of five volunteers, and we can count on him to show them what to do. He's always done a good job, but he can also lead people and get them excited about the work."

On July 18, Hamilton was so excited about the work that he couldn't stick to a single task for very long. After beginning the day mowing the fence line of the large flower garden, he spent time weeding and cutting flowers before requesting a "more masculine" task, a request Fisher received with a smile before sending him back to the garden for more flower-cutting.

Fitch is the quieter of the two. He spent Monday meticulously mowing around the smaller produce patch, showing a work ethic and dedication that has earned him admirers among the staff. He cuts flowers, pulls weeds and lays mulch: tasks he became familiar with while cleaning up a park behind his church, St. John's, for his Eagle Scout project.

"He can be quiet sometimes, but when he sees something that needs to be done, he does it," Fisher said. "He can finish things on his own."

Other than the air-conditioned trailer where participants have lunch and get a break from the heat, he said the best part of his days is cutting flowers.

"It's easy and relaxing," he said, "just sitting there and snipping flowers."

Cuts to the root

Fitch and Hamilton are two of 124 county youngsters participating in the program. That's much fewer than the 326 teens last year, when the program benefited from $253,615 in federal money that was part of the federal stimulus package.

Last year, with that federal grant and money from various state sources, the program had $523,932 overall, according to county officials.

This year, funding came only from the Maryland's Department of Social Services and State Department of Education's Division of Rehabilitation Services, a total of $242,748. All participants were selected through those two agencies.

Still, the program provides a chance for what Barbara Woods, the county's youth services manager in the Workforce Development Division of the county Department of Economic Development, called, "the most underserved population in the community."

"We know how to run a program like this," said Edward Fangman, chief of the workforce development division. "Folks in this office, at their cores, have a desire to serve those who need it most."

It was the workforce development division that was responsible for sticking with the program this summer — even with the funding reductions.

According to Woods, the program wouldn't have happened at all without lobbying from the county to secure state assistance.

Yet, even in its trimmed-back model, participants have the chance to gain work experience and learn job skills at Talmar Gardens as well as other county businesses, such as the Pikesville Hilton and Atrium Village, both in Owings Mills.

Cultivating a partnership

Talmar participated in the Summer Youth Employment Program in its previous forms, with over a dozen at-risk youth participating in years past.

Officials there say they like the program because its easy to participate — the county takes care of the employees' paperwork and payroll. That makes it a win-win: The flowers and produce grown and cultivated are sold, with the proceeds going back into operating the garden.

And in Fitch, Hamilton, and two others who work there through the program this year, Talmar Gardens has what Executive Director Cate Murphy calls her "best group ever."

"They're really focused and really want to be doing what they're doing here," Murphy said. "These guys love what they're doing, and they want to succeed."

When one of them is motivated and working hard, the rest will follow suit, she said.

"If you love the people you're working with and love where you work, you're going to be happy," Murphy said. "That makes all the difference in the world.

"They feel good about themselves," she added. "They're showing that people with disabilities are employable."

For more information about services provided through Baltimore County's Workforce Development Division, contact Barbara Woods, at 410-887-3398, or email bwoods@baltimorecountymd.gov.

NOTE: This story is updated from the Towson Times' print version, with addition funding numbers.

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