[Courtesy Photo]

Youth Garden Project founder Sarah Heffron wrote in the introduction to a new community cookbook produced by the nonprofit that she fell in love with gardening after high school. She learned about the concept of horticultural therapy, and believed that a garden could be a nurturing space for troubled youth to find meaning and build character. In 1996 she started the Youth Garden Project in the Mulberry Grove neighborhood, using her back yard and donated land, and offered a place for youth to complete court-ordered service hours as well as an opportunity for high school students to earn science credits.

Since then, the organization has expanded and continues to serve Moab through summer camps for kids, educational opportunities for high school students, Community Supported Agriculture subscriptions, community events, and other programs. According to a May 14 press release, the garden grew over 3,000 pounds of produce in 2020, and expects to top that amount in the coming season.

“At the core of it, we’re really helping people with life skills—communication, teamwork, and just learning how to be people through tending and caring for food, one of the basic needs that we all have,” said Kaitlin Thomas, current executive director of the garden. “People call them soft skills, but soft skills are hard to learn! And the garden is a forgiving place.”

In 2000, YGP partnered with the Grand County School District and moved to its current location on 1.5 acres next to Grand County High School. The greenhouse was also built that year, with most of the labor provided by a youth service organization. Gradually the nonprofit added programs like summer camps and Weed ‘n’ Feed, a regular summer event in which volunteers can help weed the garden for an hour in the evening and afterwards enjoy a meal prepared on site. The CSA program began in 2010, and now offers 26 biweekly shares of produce to subscribers.

New programs at YGP are prompted by the changing and growing needs of the community. While the garden is always the platform, said Thomas, “A lot of what we choose to do in our programming is based on what the community has dictated its needs are,” from child care, to local produce, to agricultural career preparation for young adults.

The organization’s latest effort is called Harvest of the Month, a nutritional program for Grand County school kids. Once a month during school lunch breaks, YGP staff visit each school and give samples of seasonal produce from the garden. Kids can offer feedback on the vegetable or fruit, and YGP staff also supply educators with lesson material—perhaps kids might learn about where peach trees are native and how they spread to other parts of the world, or how gardeners selectively bred plants to produce domestic spinach. Later that month, school kitchen staff work the ingredient into a school lunch menu.

“What we’re really trying to do is introduce kids to delicious foods that maybe they would be skeptical about at home,” said Emily Roberson, outreach and development coordinator for YGP. The program is in its second month; in April, the highlighted harvest was spinach.

YGP is celebrating this important anniversary with a Jubilee on June 4 and with a month-long fundraising drive. [See “Garden Party” on page 24 of this edition. -ed.] Board and staff members are grateful to the community for its support through the years. An excerpt from the May 14 press release reads:

“The Youth Garden Project is incredibly thankful to every student, parent, volunteer, staff

member, business, community partner, teacher, board member, or event-goer that has formed

YGP into more than just an educational garden, but into a community of people.”