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Pedro man, STAR residents team up for garden project

HAVERHILL — What started out as a community service project has grown — literally — into much more at the STAR Community Justice Center on Gallia Pike.

A 10,000-square-foot plot of land at the drug-treatment facility is flourishing with more than 20 kinds of vegetables under the watchful eye of some of the center’s residents and volunteer A.J. Walsh, a Pedro business owner.

Walsh came to the center in April proposing to plant the garden and see it through until harvest as part of a class project he was required to do for his recently completed bachelor’s degree at Ohio University Southern.

Walsh is no stranger to either agriculture or corrections. He is the owner of Evening Shade Nursery on State Route 93 and is also a retired police officer.

“I was familiar with this and I knew a lot about community service projects from my experience as a Boy Scout leader,” he explained.

So, since the spring, Walsh has been coming to STAR at least twice a week to work with groups of about eight men — a total of about 50 have participated — who are nearing completion of their treatment at the center and have been given the opportunity to take part in the gardening program.

STAR — which stands for Structure, Therapy, Advocacy and Restoration — is a minimum-security facility for non-violent, felony offenders from who are recommended for the program by judges in their communities.

There are 65 residents from nine counties currently housed at the center, one of those is Jeremy Johnson, who has worked tending to the garden for the past few weeks. The 31-year-old from Highland County said he is thankful for the opportunity to work with Walsh.

“It’s wonderful to be out here,” Johnson said during a break from his work Wednesday. “It makes you feel free.”

Although the residents get to go outside for other activities, Johnson said the time in the fresh air can never last long enough.

So, what is Johnson’s favorite part of the gardening program? He said it is opening the doors to come outside. Though dreaded by most, Johnson said he also enjoys weeding the garden because it is more of a challenge that other gardening tasks such as picking.

Johnson is expected to be released from STAR in September. He was sentenced to drug treatment after a number of probation violations, he said.

Although the garden has netted pounds and pounds of produce — all of which is used at the center or donated to local social service organizations — Walsh said things didn’t look so promising at first. The garden started out a piece of land with fill dirt and clay, he said. With a little tender loving care and a lot of fertilizer, the land has become a fertile home to the crops from bell peppers and green beans to cabbage and watermelons. Walsh said he and the residents have harvested about $8,000 in produce.

In addition to gardening, STAR residents are also exposed to a number of other programs, ranging from culinary arts to grounds maintenance, said Christine Martin, STAR community justice supervisor. They participate in a number of community service projects in Scioto and Lawrence counties; all of which are aimed at teaching the men job skills they will hopefully use when they are released. The center partners with OUS, Shawnee State University and many other government and community agencies in the area to provide the residents opportunities for hands-on work experience, Martin said.

“Many of the residents haven’t rightfully earned a paycheck in the past. Our goal is to help them develop the work ethic and give them the skills they need to use later in life,” she explained.

Dan Hieronimus, STAR executive director agreed with Martin saying that work projects help the residents to learn job skills. Once they are released, he said those offenders who can find gainful employment are less likely to return to jail or drug treatment

In addition to the vocational skills, he said there are other benefits to residents. Many of those receiving treatment at STAR have “never done anything for anybody without getting something in return,” according to Hieronimus. Through programs such as gardening, they can experience what it’s like to give back to the community.

“This lets them know how good it feels to give to someone without expecting anything,” he said. “It lets them reach out

Not all at STAR residents can participate in community service projects, Hieronimus explained; offenders must complete several components of the program and prove they can be trusted in work environments.