Over 100 guests filled tables covered in white linen at the Juvenile Services Division in Northeast Portland for the annual Farm to Table Dinner Saturday, Sept. 16, to celebrate the achievements of over 45 youth who helped contribute to the dinner.
Each year, the event marks the celebration of the progress of youth participants in the Hands of Wonder (HOW) garden program and the Culinary Arts Youth Program. Youth in the HOW program participate in a multi-week restorative justice, incentive-based garden program designed to improve the trajectory of their lives.
“This is our second year back since COVID,” said Pidcoke. “Thank you so much for sharing food and community together. It’s fun to see creativity and to eat the fruits of their labor tonight.”
At the end of every session, HOW youth receive their own jewelers loupe — a strong magnifying glass that they use throughout the program to look closely at insect damage and identify insects — as a reminder to take the time to appreciate the small wonders of nature and practice mindfulness by being in the present moment.
“It transfers these kids into a different mindset to where they have a purpose: they have an understanding of what it takes to grow food.”
The Culinary Arts Youth Program serves as a job readiness training program for youth interested in pursuing a career in the food service industry. Both HOW and Culinary Arts help youth gain skills they can use throughout their lives.
The night’s dinner was served with the bountiful vegetables grown by participants of the HOW program, while Culinary Arts students helped cook the food.
“Through restorative justice practice, through agriculture, this garden has touched a lot of kids, grounded them in nature’s therapeutic benefits and helped them gain understanding of their purpose and offered them guidance,” said Jerry Hunter, the HOW garden program and employment coordinator, who addressed diners Saturday evening and acknowledged the effort and work that goes on behind the scenes to make it all possible.
Throughout the program, the young people develop relationship and decision-making skills that are based on impact, rather than making “in the moment" decisions, said Hunter. They put themselves in someone else’s shoes, particularly in cases where the other person has experienced harm.
The Culinary Arts Youth Program gives students the opportunity to develop skills in a commercial kitchen at the Juvenile Services Division. Each program serves as a stepping stone toward employment. Toward the end of each program, participants learn about job opportunities, practice interview skills and create resumes. Youth can receive up to $599 in stipends for their participation. Participants in both programs have the opportunity to obtain a food handler's permit.
A highlight of the dinner event is hearing youth speak about their experiences in the programs.
One youth shared that she didn't like the HOW program at first and didn't believe in it, but as time went on, she and Jerry started talking about what could affect them the rest of their lives.
“Jerry spoke to me. He related to my situation. I started enjoying the program and feeling at peace. I began opening up more,” she said. “He became a mentor to me.”
Today, that youth is off formal probation, working part-time while earning a high school diploma. She is going through the process of expungement.
Guests at the dinner ranged from youth participants and their proud parents to the staff from across the County, such as Juvenile Services Division professionals, Multnomah County judges, district attorneys, representatives from the Oregon Youth Authority and volunteers, as well as community partners like Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center + Rosemary Anderson High School, Pathfinders, the Oregon Department of Human Services, Latino Network, Worksystems, Volunteers of America and Portland Nursery.
Juvenile Services Division Director Dr. Kyla Armstrong-Romero opened Saturday’s event with a welcome message spoken in Spanish, followed by the same message read in English by Department of Community Justice Director Erika Preuitt.
“Today, we gather here to honor the remarkable efforts of our youth who have embraced the beauty of sustainable agriculture and the importance of wholesome, locally sourced food. This event serves as a platform to recognize and appreciate the hard work by these remarkable individuals,” the message began.
Armstrong-Romero and Preuitt thanked attendees and recognized the commitment, passion and dedication of Hunter and Kimberly Pidcoke, the Nutrition Services Manager for the Juvenile Services Division who also helps manage the Culinary Arts Program. Pidcoke works alongside Colin Erickson who conducts training for the youth.