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Sowing the ‘Seeds of Change’: Rehabilitation program at Howard detention center sells plants grown by inmates

Tim Grauel was serving two consecutive 18-month sentences at the Howard County Detention Center. While most of Grauel’s time was spent inside the walls of the Jessup facility, for a few hours each week he would have the chance to go outside and work in the native-plant nursery on the grounds.

Though the 37-year-old Columbia resident was released early in June on good behavior, Grauel visited the grounds of the nursery once more Friday. This time it was for an event to celebrate the program that once led him outside the walls of the detention center.

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Grauel participated in the Seeds of Change program, run by Howard EcoWorks and the Department of Corrections, which aims to educate and provide vocational training to detention center inmates so they can grow and maintain a native plant nursery. On Friday, local leaders hosted a news conference to generate awareness of the program and sell plants the inmates had grown.

The program is what Howard EcoWorks Executive Director Lori Lilly calls a “win-win.”

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“It’s a very depressing environment in the jail and, if you can get people outside, they can be doing something productive. It helps them feel good, and it helps a program like ours that needs plants for projects,” Lilly said.

It’s been four years since Lilly started the Seeds of Change program, which grew out of an existing green jobs program called the READY Program — Restoring the Environment And Developing Youth — that engages young adults to build gardens in the county.

So far, the READY Program has built 150 gardens in Howard County, a task made easier by having a place to store supplies and plants; the space at the detention center gives Howard EcoWorks just that.

“I learned of a similar model in the Midwest where a conservation group was working with a detention center to grow out plants and using volunteer labor from the inmates to help with the care,” Lilly said.

In 2016, Lilly approached Howard County Department of Corrections Director Jack Kavanagh and asked if she could start a similar program. Kavanagh agreed instantly, according to Lilly.

The county cleared the area, provided a water source and put in a gravel access road to make the area more conducive to a nursery. After that, Howard EcoWorks and inmates installed a fence and put up a shed.

“This space wasn’t being utilized, and I think it’s a great opportunity to get people outside,” Lilly said.

Virginia Gambrell, 33, has been working as the nursery manager for Howard EcoWorks for the past year. Gambrell said her goal is to give the inmates job training for the landscape industry.

Gambrell teaches an intro to sustainability course at the detention center that is tailored to the work being done in the nursery. Those who can’t participate in the class but have work release privilege from the detention center can come out and work with Gambrell a few times a week.

At the nursery, inmates water the plants, put up plants, mow the grass, weed and mulch, according to Lilly.

Grauel didn’t take the course but while in minimum security, he frequently took advantage of the option to go outside and work with Gambrell and the Seeds of Change program, visiting the nursery two to three times a week for a few hours. Grauel said he planted more than 500 plants at the center while serving time for burglary and firearms convictions.

“When you’re inside knowing that you’re going to be able to go outside and not be behind the fence, it doesn’t matter if it’s picking cigarette butts up; you’re kind of excited for it just to get the fresh air to feel that feeling,” he said.

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Grauel now works as a forklift driver at a BJ’s Wholesale Club and is hoping to get back into landscaping next summer.

“I think as far as the incentive to be able to come is enough to make you start thinking about your choices while you’re in because you want to be eligible to keep doing that, so you’re not going to get into any trouble,” Grauel said. “For me it kind of showed how, with a little persistence, you can make something grow.”

Now Lilly is trying to expand the project by making it more financially sustainable through plant sales in the fall and spring.

At the Friday and Saturday events, Gambrell said Howard EcoWorks sold between 200 and 300 plants.

“The plant sale will bring in some revenue, but it’s more about generating awareness about something like this that has so many benefits,” Lilly said.

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