Fridays are my day at the local youth correctional facility. In the morning, I work in their garden, helping young gardeners tend to their chickens, vegetable plots and herb gardens.
We plant, weed, water, and harvest, and then preserve and dry the results. Most every week, we cook, enjoying the bounty of our work, and treating the young men to fresh, nutritious produce and the concept of healthy nutrition and living.
The real gardening comes in our conversations, the camaraderie of young and older gardeners, working and learning together, truly being in community.
They are learning where food really comes from, and how to be invested in that process, being self sufficient and healthy. The metaphor of the garden is not lost on them, as they work to become strong, healthy, productive farmers of their lives.
I also work with some of the young men individually, being the “surrogate parent” and being the visitor they need and wouldn’t have otherwise. I’m the “family” who shows up with some baked goods or candy, and just visits for an hour. Sometimes, we play games, but mainly, I just listen, offering the compassionate ear of the uncle or dad who is missing in their lives.
I’m tender and kind to them, being the encouraging voice, the cheerleader, the supportive dad they wouldn’t otherwise have.
Today, one of my young men and I restrung one of the guitars there. It is a “state” guitar, which means it’s the guitar that gets played by those who don’t have their own instrument. The guitar is played a lot, and replacing the strings has become a regular task for me.
The guitar gets loved to death, played hard by lonely, frustrated fingers pouring out the emotions of the neglected and abandoned, the incarcerated, the young men who have no other way of expressing themselves. I’m like that guitar, a place where the emotions of these young men can have their voice, a willing ear, an appreciative audience for what they need to say.
My guy has had a rough year. He’s one of the lucky ones, not serving a mandatory sentence, a guy who can walk out the door if he’s done all his treatment, completed high school and shown he can be a responsible young man.
He literally has the keys to the front gate, but the old voices keep telling him he’s worthless, and should be abandoned and left out for the trash man.
Like so many of the young men here, being responsible and healthy is a new experience, and the fear of going back into the world, and being around the family and friends who were a big part of the bad times that brought him here, is one huge scary nightmare of parole.
The thought of being successful in life is a new idea. For most of their life, they’ve been told they are worthless, failures. My job is to be a spark of encouragement, the mirror of their successes and self worth, to be the dad who believes in them and is proud of who they are becoming.
My job and the job of the guitar are a lot alike.
My buddy has derailed himself a number of times here, despite all his good work. The old ways, the old voices still show up, beating him down with the whips of shame and guilt, the indifference to the beauty of their young souls.
Today, though, he moved ahead. He took the initiative and restrung the guitar, without much help from me. With confidence, he completed the task, grinning as the new strings sang out their song in his confident fingers. His eyes twinkled with pride as he showed others the work he had done.
We did more than restring an old, well-used guitar. We restrung a young man and gave voice to the new, self-confident man now playing his songs, happy with what he’s done and who he’s becoming.
--Neal Lemery, 12/9/2016