Shelterwood’s horticulture program began, appropriately, with a small seed of an idea: Executive Director Rujon Morrison wanted to transform the empty space behind the girls’ house into something more beautiful and useful: a prayer garden.

“I had a vision for a raised-bed garden with a cross in the middle,” Rujon says, “A place where the girls could do some work, have flowers…a place with quiet beauty.”

Thanks to an impromptu donation from a previous Shelterwood family, the prayer garden had its first growing season in 2013. Flowers bloomed alongside a vegetable garden full of tomatoes, bell peppers and squash. Shelterwood students began experiencing the healing power of gardens and green spaces.

And like all seeds given water, light and room to grow, the horticulture program has thrived, thanks to support from students, staff, alumni and partners like Kansas City Community Gardens. In 2016, additional raised beds by the Beach Lodge produced their first crop, adding to the community’s quickly growing bounty. In 2017, Shelterwood received a grant to build a high tunnel, or greenhouse.

“I’ve never done a greenhouse, so that’s when I really started looking for some help,” Rujon laughs.

Enter Lynn Youngblood, a neighbor with the exact skills Rujon was looking for.

Lynn lives nearby Shelterwood and attended an open house several years ago. While there, she told maintenance director, Tom Booth, about her background as a horticultural therapist “in another lifetime,” before mental health programs encountered drastic cuts.

With a bachelor’s degree in horticulture and a master’s in education, Lynn has reinvented her career several times over, including working as a nature center manager and leading environmental organizations.

“Every job I’ve had in my life has led me to where I am now,” Lynn says. “I was actually shocked when Rujon called me, saying ‘You’re a horticultural therapist.’ I asked ‘How did you know that?’”

Lynn quickly came on board as a consultant for Shelterwood’s horticulture program. She is instrumental in guiding both the practical logistics of community gardening (she created Shelterwood’s strategic irrigation plan, for example) and championing its emotional benefits.

“Our gardens, the outdoors, nature—they soothe our souls,” Lynn explains. “[Nature] has a way of creeping in and mending all the hurt that we have inside of us.”

“When we have young people who don’t necessarily know how to express themselves…or what makes them sad, or feel pain,” Lynn continues, “just putting their hands in the soil and helping something grow helps them feel healed. It helps them feel like things are going to get better.”

Rujon agrees, saying Shelterwood’s horticulture opportunities help students in several ways. First, some residents may discover they really enjoying working in the dirt.

“We’re always looking for healthy hobbies that are life-giving and that may, for some, open up into a career,” Rujon says, sharing that one alumna has gone on to study horticulture after learning about gardening at Shelterwood.

Secondly, gardening creates space for experiential therapeutic opportunities. Some students are more likely to talk about their feelings while doing the physical work of gardening. The garden can also give young people shared goals and activities—a key part of relationship building.

Finally, it can help students simply be still.

“It can help them learn how to be peaceful in a world so bombarded by social media,” Rujon says. “And to find God in nature. To be drawn to Him in that way.”

There are educational benefits, too. As the the executive director of the Blue River Watershed Association, Lynn helped incorporate a course on water quality into Shelterwood’s summer science curriculum. Over four sessions, students learned about watersheds, storm-water runoff, pollutants and more. As a final project, students tested the water quality of the Little Blue River just a mile away from Shelterwood.

“They actually asked ‘What is the relationship between water quality and our plants?’” Lynn remembers. “I almost fell over. That was exciting for me…They are actually interested enough, and paying enough attention, that they were drawing those conclusions on their own.”

The horticulture program is helping students connect both academically and spiritually. Rujon has been able to help residents see their lives in new ways through gardening metaphors.

She tells a story about sitting with a young woman in the prayer garden. As they talked, they examined a “mystery plant” the staff had let grow. It had turned into a giant weed that was taking over the garden. They decided to tackle it together, but it would not budge.

Rujon likened the stubborn weed to decisions the young woman had made in the past that were having serious consequences in her life. If left alone too long, uprooting past mistakes is a big undertaking.

“We had to get a shovel, and it took two of us to get that thing out,” Rujon remembers. “I said, there are some things you can’t handle on your own. You have to have some help. Right? We all need each other.”

Lynn agrees and adds that working with plants changes us on a very fundamental level. She explains that even before young people can develop self-esteem, they have to have a solid “sense of self” to begin with. That can be hard to develop in a world where humans are disconnected from both nature and each other.

“When you work in the garden, there’s a sense of physicality. You are pressing against something. There’s a force that says, there’s that thing, and there’s me,” Lynn explains. “And I’m beginning to know who I am. I am here, and I am engaging with this environment, and I can make a difference in it. That spatial awareness and physicality…when that starts to grow, that’s the foundation for our sense of self-esteem. Our kids need that.”

Right now, Rujon and Lynn are currently evaluating Shelterwood’s first growing season with the greenhouse. They tried out multiple varieties of edible plants and worked with Shelterwood’s kitchen staff to figure out which vegetables worked best with both menu planning—and students’ appetites. What’s next? Shelterwood is going to work with Giving Grove to create a fruit and nut tree orchard on an exposed hillside by the Beach Lodge.

“The physicality of gardening and what it does foundationally is really powerful,” Lynn says. “We are trying to make horticulture more of an official part of our program. That’s our challenge for this next year: How we do it more intentionally.”