“To change lives, to alter lives, it's a process,” said Jerry Hunter, Hands of Wonder (HOW) garden program & employment coordinator. “It takes a team — everyone in the Community Interface Services Unit — we all contribute to making a difference in the lives of youth.”
“Why do I like working with some of the most challenging kids?” he continues. “When the change happens, it’s all the more rewarding. It’s all the more motivating.”
Hunter is a familiar face for young people and countless others throughout the community in Multnomah County. He’s a basketball coach, a mentor, a beekeeper and a master gardener who's devoted more than 15 years service to Multnomah County — and even more to his community.
He is also one of the many professionals being honored this week, July 19-23, as part of Pretrial, Probation and Parole Supervision Week. The annual recognition honors not only the professionals that make up the week’s namesake but also the juvenile court counselors, juvenile custody services specialists, corrections counselors, administrative staff, employment coordinators, victims advocates, and countless others who have devoted their lives to some of the most pressing matters facing society today.
“It’s a whole team effort from top to bottom guiding these youth,” said Hunter. “It takes a team, it’s everybody.”
Hands of Wonder is a restorative-justice-based garden program that works with medium-to-high-risk youth involved with Multnomah County’s Juvenile Services Division. Young people may be referred to the program by their juvenile court counselor. The program encourages youth to meaningfully reflect on the ripple effects of the events that may have brought them there — including any impacts to a victim, their community and their family.
The nine-week program serves young people ages 14 to 19. It’s an incentive-based program, where youth may earn up to $599 for their work. Participants are expected to learn and do all the tasks, big and small, that keep the garden flourishing — from composting and cleaning up, to pruning and watering, to examining insects and any damage to plants.
“I interview them and hire them,” said Hunter. “It’s as much a job readiness as it is a garden program. And they get feedback on how they did in the interview.“
“I tell youth during orientation, ‘You’re going to help me help others who will be coming into the program.’”
The program, during a normal year, welcomes the kids on Saturdays and Sundays at the Juvenile Services Division in Northeast Portland. Start time is 9:30 a.m. sharp.
As the youths arrive, “I feed them breakfast,” Hunter says. “We have a check in and see what everyone is doing in our circle group. We check in on what the day looks like and what the task may be.
All in all, two gardens with sizable garden space will be prepped and harvested for the winter. Along the way, the youths work on relationship skills and practice decision-making that’s based on impact, rather than making just “in the moment decisions.”
Throughout the program, Hunter teaches restorative justice and wellness along with gardening.
“It’s hands-on coaching and mentoring right there in the garden.”
They have conversations about fresh food and explore all different approaches to foods and access to eating foods.
“When you hear kids talking about fresh food, it’s so rewarding,” Hunter says.
The program also explores the importance of habits like recycling.
“We talk about plastic recycling, do they do it? What does your carbon footprint look like?”
This past year has presented some tough challenges, with COVID-19, the closure of so many community strongholds, and then a series of unprecedented natural disasters and weather events. Keeping the Hands of Wonder Garden Program going during a pandemic was no easy feat.
The program reached youths through virtual programming twice a day, alongside online sessions and videos on restorative justice, mindfulness, gardening, motivation, communication, health and nutrition.
But the hands-on work in the garden is where Hunter knows he can make a world of difference. Another group is set to start their nine weeks in September.
“Youth have been in their homes,” he says. “They’ve been isolated. Now they’re going to engage and be hands on. Lots of youth want to escape from their home environment.”
Hands of Wonder can also serve as a stepping stone to employment. As the program nears its final weeks, the participants will learn about job opportunities, and practice interviewing and writing up resumes. Some youths are even able to obtain a food handler’s permit through the program.
Hunter works with POIC + Rosemary Anderson High School and Latino Network’s Community Healing Initiative. He works with Job Corps and SummerWorks as part of his work connecting youth with employment options.
The youths look up to Hunter, who also brings credibility to his work after 23 years as a basketball coach. He says he’s worked with hundreds of young people and makes clear “I still remember them, hundreds of them.”
“Some youth still call me coach to this day,” he says. “Youth respond to that and it’s another avenue to reach them. I’m focusing on change and making a difference in youths' lives because they need it.
You might be caught up in the system, but you can get out of the system.”