Grants and gardens: Busy summer for Saline B&G Club

By Wayne Bryan Published July 24, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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Wayne Bryan

Heath Massey of the Boys & Girls Club of Saline County shows a group of club members that the purple hull peas grown in the club garden are almost ready to harvest. Massey said the children who work in the garden and tend the chickens raised at the club get to select vegetables and eggs to take home. The garden also has flowers and herbs that are sold at the Benton Farmers Market on Thursdays during the summer.

BENTON — In the gym, there is not one basketball game going on, but children are shooting baskets around every hoop. Meanwhile, kids seem to be playing kickball behind the shooters, and about 10 youngsters are sitting in a circle roughly in the center of the court playing an unidentified game, or maybe they are just talking to each other.

It’s summer at the Boys & Girls Club of Saline County in Benton.

Next door, four tables with game boards painted on them have been pushed together, and eight to 10 children — the numbers seem fluid — are playing with Tinkertoy sets, building blocks and Lincoln Logs.

“We have about 448 members registered this summer,” said Emmy Rogers, resource development director for the club in Benton. “We average about 350 kids on any day.”

“When it isn’t raining, we have a lot of kids outdoors at the garden,” said Heath Massey, athletics director and head farmer of the club’s agricultural operation behind the gym. “We have four to six groups of 20 to 25 kids who tend the garden.”

In raised beds, the children grow tomatoes, watermelons, purple hull peas and other vegetables. Massey let one group pick the ripe tomatoes in two of the raised beds. Then he showed the young farmers how the purple hull peas were maturing.

For educational purposes, the club also oes small patches of rice and cotton.

“We want to show kids the money crops that have such an impact on the state’s economy,” Massey said. “We will enter the crops in the fair this fall.”

Massey said the club planted soybeans last year, but they did not do well, so they were passed over this year.

On the north side of the raised beds, there were hanging baskets of flowers in full bloom. Those are part of the club’s cash crop.

“As part of our entrepreneurial program, the teenagers in the club raise hanging baskets of flowers and herbs and sell them on Thursdays at the Benton Farmers Market,” said Jasen Kelly, chief professional officer of the club. “The kids sell them from 8:30 a.m. until 11 a.m. so we can get them back to lunch at the club. They make about $50 a week, which we reinvest in seeds.”

Kelly said the teams working with the plants and taking them to market are learning about the entire process of raising a crop and selling it.

“They see the beginning from seeds, and they follow what goes to the point of sale,” Kelly said. “Most of them find it pretty cool.”

The favorite spot in the garden for the younger children is the hen house. Massey said seven hens live there and are tended by the children.

“We get about 15 eggs a day,” he said. “They are given to the children who work the gardens. Those who work with the chickens and those who work the gardens get to select from the produce and eggs they help raise.”

The garden is becoming more sustainable each year, Massey said. All the vegetables grown this year came from seeds collected from produce last year. The club also has an incubator, and several times a year, chicks are hatched to add to the flock.

However, there is more to the club than farming and games. Kelly said the club received a $3,000 grant from Verizon Wireless in Arkansas that helps with the club’s backpack program.

“Backpacks are given to children who have been identified as having food insecurity, meaning they don’t know when their next meal will be coming,” Kelly said. “We place [in the backpacks] a healthy snack and food for them and their parents.”

The food is often variations of menu items served by the club for their members’ lunches every day, but it can make a major difference at home. Other items included in the backpacks are toothpaste and a toothbrush, soap and shampoo, Kelly said.

Another, larger grant for more than $29,000 was presented to the club to help some of the state’s worst juvenile offenders to re-enter the community and find jobs.

“We have not had a grant like this since 2009,” Kelly said. “We are all excited that we have the funds to try and help these kids.”

There is a branch of the Boys & Girls Club of Saline County at the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center in Alexander, where 100 young people, ages 12 to 18, are held after committing what are termed “the more serious offenses” by the Division of Youth Services of the Arkansas Department of Human Services.

Kelly explained that the grant helps provide training for some of the young people nearing their release dates and helps prepare them for the job market.

“One program earns the kids a certificate of employee and job maturity,” Kelly said. “That is the very basics of how to get a job, something many of these young people know nothing about. It includes how to fill out an application and write a cover letter to an employer. Then, it prepares them for an interview. It trains them on what to wear, how to sit and how to respond to some of the questions they will get.”

Another program is for those who are ready to look for something more.

“It is called the career launch program for young people who have gotten their GED and are looking to find more meaningful employment such as manufacturing in central Arkansas,” Kelley said. “We know that if someone can come back into the community and find a good, meaningful and well-paying job, they are less likely to get back into the criminal justice system. The program is exciting.”

Funding for youth programs is a year-round job for the officials at the Boys & Girls Club in Benton. This October, Poyen native and Benton resident Justin Moore, one of the newer stars of country music, will return to the Benton Event Center for the club’s annual fundraiser.

“He had so much fun last year, he talked with us about coming back,” Rogers said. “Tickets go on sale Aug. 1.”

For tickets to the Oct. 16 event or more information about the Boys & Girls Club of Saline County, call (501) 315-8100.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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