It's a beautiful day: The sky is so bright it almost hurts to look at it. There's no wind, no moisture, no need to rush. Probably many of us would like to be by the sea.
Adam* says so. "Rather be fishing," he mutters as he works in a garden, dropping juvenile leek plants into holes.
The garden wouldn't be a bad spot for lots of us, except Adam has to be here. He's an offender that Community Corrections is managing in the community.
He's offhand about work in the soil, but grudgingly admits he's learning stuff on this Saxton Rd site owned by the adjacent Seventh Day Adventist church.
Each week there's a crew of offenders here, tending long-established sections that produce fresh veges for distribution to the local foodbank or through other channels. They're here by 8.20am and work till 3.30pm.
Other older workers are far more upbeat. They fizz about their newfound knowledge.
"It's fun . . . I have a cool garden at home now because of this," says Helen.
"We planted 300 pumpkins up here and it was empowering."
She hadn't done much gardening in the past because she wasn't "into it". Now she has time and good tools to use. This season, her home garden has boasted beetroot, zucchini, cabbage, broccoli and tomatoes.
"I've made heaps of tomato relish. They're yum."
Starting up a garden doesn't have to be expensive - she's also learnt that.
"It's only about $6 for a 40-litre bag of compost and also we learn to grow plants from seed, rather than buying seedlings." Other money-saving techniques are also taught: Making compost from organic matter and learning how to use different parts of a plant in cooking for example.
"It's hard case," she goes on to say. "A mate of one of my neighbours even came over and told me how good my garden looked."
Pete is interested in Helen's talk of tomato relish. A 38-year-old with a tribe of kids and one grandchild, he's long been into gardening. He likes growing old- fashioned varieties and says his kids "get into it ".
"The heirloom stuff is just different, like purple beans and stuff like that."
Growing your own is cheaper and better because the veges taste nicer. "They're pretty tasteless in the shops."
Michael has done PD (as he calls it) before. Like Pete, he grows veges at home so possesses some knowhow, although he's open to learning more.
"I just want to learn as much as possible . . . anything really, like about pests on your veges . . . I'm giving it a shot."
While garden toil isn't new, what is new is the ability of Pete or Michael to start working towards a horticultural qualification through the Corrections Department.
Now there is far more emphasis on teaching offenders, on rehabilitating them, and thereby helping them gain employment or at least a better future.
It overrides the philosophy that once drove the penal system - that of offenders on community sentences biding their time. Now, some good can come from a misdemeanour.
Offenders with a desire to learn can gain credits towards a National Certificate in Horticulture (Practical) Level 1.
Senior Community Work Supervisor Adele Wisnewski, a former New Plymouth District Council parks staff member, is helping to encourage the new initiative. She did her apprenticeship through the council, and is pretty hot on the incalculable benefits of growing edible crops.
Growing up in Inglewood in a family of 14, she remembers how necessary her dad's yearly potato crops were. "The cost of buying things like that would have been horrendous."
Some offenders hail from families where gardening is commonplace, others have no idea and no positive role models, she says.
"I enjoy it because you can tell that some are sponges and they're taking it all in, especially when you see them a few months later and they tell you about their garden at home. You know you have made a difference. We're not going to change everybody, but we can help a few."
(Some want to pick her brains for information about other crops like marijuana - it's an occupation hazard Wisnewski is well aware of.)
Running in tandem with the national horticultural certificate is another programme, Plant It, Grow It, Eat It. It's shorter and takes place over successive weeks with participants taken through different stages from sowing seeds, to caring for plants, to harvesting them and then cooking together. They might take the cooked food home or distribute to kindergartens or pre-schools.
To date, 40 have been through the programme.
In March, celebrity chef Jax Hamilton, in New Plymouth for Womad, ran a fun afternoon of cooking and taught offenders about low-budget, tasty meals.
The opportunity to complete a course in practical gardening skills leading to the National Certificate in Horticulture (Practical) Level 1 is a new one. The practical gardening skills programme was developed by Corrections for use by prison- based and community-based offenders. The Primary Industry Training Organisation (ITO) supports the programme.
Wisnewski shows us the work diary, a booklet with simple subjects, like maintaining gardens, and complex topics such as maintaining small engines or selecting and growing a crop of 50 plants.
There's also the chance to complete GrowSafe training, which covers knowledge and practices required to use agrichemicals. The certificate is a handy drawcard for future employment.
The diary is clearly laid out, but reasonable literacy and numeracy is needed and that's an issue for some offenders. Corrections staff know that. On the days when Wisnewski isn't supervising garden crews she's running basic life-skills courses encompassing things like literacy, budgeting and first aid. Currently she's doing a professional development course focusing on how to teach literacy and numeracy skills.
"It's a great course because it's about different learning styles. We're working out things like how to deliver the information so they can better understand it."
Corrections staff also receive training in motivational techniques to encourage offenders along.
Wisnewski is low-key and straight-faced but talks enthusiastically and at length about the gardens and their redemptive power.
"I think they take a lot of pride. When they take stuff over to the church or when they cook soup and take it to a kindergarten there's pride when they give it out.
"Their whole attitude is different."
She goes on:
"The whole concept used to be that we were the jailers, but we're educating people, we want to break the cycle [of imprisonment], we want to do ourselves out of a job."
When we leave, the crew - clad in fluoro vests - rests in the shade of a pre-fabricated building. Two hours work in the sun has made them thirsty. Pete whinges good- naturedly about the tea he's just made for the team.
As a group they're reluctant to open up like some have while working in the garden.
One tells us, however, that his family called into a foodbank recently because money was tight and his four kids needed feeding. He describes the box of food: Loaded up and generous it contained "all sorts, Miss".
"Yeah, they really hooked us up."
Agrees Helen: "I think it's cool how we are giving back to people in need. When we deliver veges to the foodbank that's awesome."
The names of all offenders have been changed.
- Taranaki Daily News
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