August 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 4 // Ideas at Work // 4IAW6

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

Parvis e glandibus quercus "Great Oaks From Little Acorns Grow"

This unique mentoring program involves volunteer Master Gardeners, specially trained in horticultural therapy, interacting with youth-at-risk students between the ages of 11 and 14. Students participating in the program exhibited increased self-esteem, self-confidence, pride in their accomplishments, enthusiasm, and a positive change in attitude. Truancy has decreased and grades have improved among the students participating in the program. As a result of the program, increased funding has been received from traditional and non- traditional sources and has led to the establishment of an additional youth development position in the county.

Stephen J. Hudkins
Assistant Professor & Extension Agent
Ohio State University Extension - Portage County
Ravenna, Ohio
Internet address:

"Great oaks from little acorns grow" is an adage that is useful in looking at the unqualified success realized in the Portage County, Ohio, horticultural therapy program. This suburban county invested in the human development potential by planting seeds in the minds and lives of its youth. The process of growing and learning is a two-way street in this program. Adult Extension Master Gardener volunteers employ horticultural arts and sciences to teach troubled youth life and career skills. The youth then re-bridge the generational gap with horticultural therapy for senior citizens at a local nursing home. Funding for this innovative intergenerational approach to leadership development was provided through an innovative grant from the Ohio State University Extension, the Portage County commissioners, and the local jobs training program act.

The genesis of the program was an intensive needs assessment for the county in the Spring of 1991. Three of the clear-cut needs identified were: leadership development for at-risk youth, opportunities for seniors to maintain and develop self-esteem, and the need for motivated employees in the growing local green industry. These needs became the fertile ground that provided the impetus for development of the "Twig Twisters" horticulture therapy program.

Master Gardeners (trained by a licensed horticultural therapist) who opt to volunteer for this horticultural therapy program teach youth basic horticultural skills, experimental design for vegetable and flower plots, and techniques to involve senior citizens with plants. This includes topiary, miniature gardens, Easter baskets, gardens for smell and texture for impaired seniors, and raised bed and bench gardening for wheelchair gardeners. The volunteers also are taught mentoring skills to help youth that join the program. Horticulture is presented as a year-long activity that nearly parallels a youth's constant decision-making and investments for the future.

Students participating in the program exhibited increased self-esteem, self-confidence, pride in their accomplishments and enthusiasm, and were more open and talkative. For example, at a legislative breakfast meeting in June 1995, they took leadership in providing tours of their gardens to national, state and local elected officials. The students enthusiasm and knowledge of the program were noted by the public officials. There has also been a noticeable change in behavior of the participants by both parents and school personnel. A teacher of one student commented that for the first time her student was showing an interest in school and received a passing grade in all of his subjects. She attributed this to the student's involvement in the horticultural therapy program.

Results of the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale tests indicated a positive change in attitude and feelings of self-esteem for youth completing the program. Extension educators have also shared many nonofficial anecdotes where the youth have clearly made improvements in communication skills and team-work behavior.

As a result of the program's success, the county commissioners appropriated an additional $5,000 for Extension to continue its efforts in youth leadership development. The expansion of the program led to the employment of a second Extension Agent for youth development in the county. Funding for the position came from state funds designated specifically for youth-at-risk who can be transitioned into the more traditional 4-H club program. The position is being cost-shared with the county schools, a departure from the traditional county funding of an Extension position.

This program shows how many organizations have joined together with trained volunteers for the nurturing of troubled youths. Seeds have been planted, nurtured, and, in turn, will offer much to the greater society in a future season. The program is easily adaptable throughout the country with its synergistic blend of youth-at-risk, senior citizens, and volunteer clientele. To quote Alexander Poe, "Tis education forms the common mind: just as the twig is bent, the tree's inclined."