Pair wants to create therapeutic garden for kids in detention centers

Posted on 7:15 p.m. Friday, April 20, 2018

Natasha Donnelly, the State Assistant Manager of Health Services for Juvenile Justice

Raleigh, N.C. — A professor at North Carolina State University says spaces, like gardens, that help a person step out of their daily life and think are needed in juvenile justice facilities.

“It’s a lot more than that, it’s a good way to figure out your place in the world,” said Anne Spafford.

Spafford, an associate professor of horticulture, is helping to design therapeutic gardens. She has enlisting her landscape design students to build places of peace at two state-run youth detention facilities.

“Being in a garden setting is just relaxing. It can lower blood pressure, it can calm you, it can de-stress you, so these gardens are very powerful,” she said.

Natasha Donnelly, the state assistant manager of health services for juvenile justice, is the force behind the project.

“I love to see people thrive. I love to support people on their journey,” Donnelly said.

Throughout her career, Donnelly said she has seen a lot.

“I have seen people in states of despair. They’re not horrible people, they are people who have lived through life, that have had experiences that have had a negative impact on them,” she said.

Donnelly and Spafford started the project by asking the kids in the system what they would want in a garden.

“We want to get these two gardens in this year. We need to show them something is happening. We want to get them installed, so they know we care. We don’t want to let them down. This is a population that has been let down countless times before,” Spafford said.

The only thing stopping the project right now is money. The two need to raise about $200,000 to get the project underway. They are applying for grants and are asking for help.

“It’s so worthwhile. I think it’s essential and I think we have enough knowledge now to really see that this works,” Donnelly said.

The first two gardens are being designed for the Cumberland Youth Detention Facility and the Chatham Youth Development Center.

Richard Adkins
Web Editor
Natalie Matthews

Tar Heel of the Week – Anne Spafford

Therapeutic gardens planned for NC juvenile detention centers

Posted on The News & Observer April 12, 2018 08:25 PM

Anne Spafford, Associate Professor of Horticultural Science at N.C. State University

Anne Spafford, an associate professor of horticultural science at N.C. State University, believes gardens can help at-risk kids gain self-confidence and improve behavior. Spafford is joining forces with the N.C. Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to create the state’s first two “therapeutic” gardens. Here she talks about the gardens that are planned for youth detention centers in Fayetteville and Siler City.

Q: How did you get involved with juvenile justice to help kids involved in or traumatized by criminal activity?

A: When I was getting my master’s in landscape architecture, my project was looking at the landscape of prisons. Cut to many years later, and Natasha Donnelly, the assistant manager of health services (for juvenile justice), called our department, and my boss connected her to me. We ended up talking for hours.

I brought the project into my planting design class in the fall, and I had students take on individual designs that involved us going to the sites, researching what the parameters were and involving the students and staff at the centers in the design process.

Q: On any given day in North Carolina, 442 children are committed to the juvenile justice system. Research has shown that many have been exposed to traumatic events. How will these gardens help them?

A: The gardens can help with internalized behavior modification, helping them to relax, de-stress, regain composure, release pent-up frustrations, increase self-esteem, increase sense of accomplishment, promote feelings of hope and also teach patience, which goes along with impulse control.

Mental health experts say that spending time in a therapeutic garden can help a youth learn to live with emotional trauma, assist with neurological development and emotional literacy.

Q: What will the gardens look like?

A: There are counseling spaces, sensory gardens, pollinator habitats, art expression walls, outdoor classrooms and small amphitheaters. It’s probably the lowest-cost way of expanding the facilities, and it’s the only place where personal expression is allowed. They would have veggie gardens and other edible plants as a way of connecting back to nature and food.

Q: How are the youth in the detention centers in Fayetteville and Siler City participating in the planning process?

A: We sat down with some students and had others do designs of what they would want, and then my students analyzed the drawings and incorporated the best ideas. They’re interested to know that other people care about them.

They were involved in our presentations to the directors (at juvenile justice). They couldn’t come, but they were able to see the presentations through WebEx. We couldn’t see them but apparently they were cheering.

Q: Money is needed for the projects. You planned “Art Expression in the Garden,” a fundraiser on April 21 at the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh. What’s at stake here?

A: Time is of the essence, because this population is critical. The youth are so excited and full of hope, and we don’t want to let them down. A lot of them have been let down so many times that it’s important for us to get these first two gardens built to show people that it can be done.

Q: Could the gardens make a lasting impact?

A: If we can create a spark — an interest in nature, an interest in growing food — that spark could change someone’s life. Maybe they end up going to a two-year or four-year program, and there are mechanisms to help them do that. We could have youth that started out in a really bad place, and they could have a better outlook on life, a paying job that’s rewarding and helps others.

One of the youth said the garden project meant so much to him because he could actually leave a legacy of hope — to know that things can get better, there is a different path.

Know someone who would make a good Tar Heel of the Week? Send nominations to [email protected].

Tar Heel of the Week — Anne Spafford

Born: 1969, in Urbana, Illinois

Residence: She moved to Raleigh in 2001.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in horticulture, master’s in landscape architecture from University of Illinois

Occupation: Associate professor, horticultural science, N.C. State

Fundraiser: “Art Expression in the Garden” will be from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, April 21. Tickets are $75; kids 12 and under can attend for free. To buy tickets or donate, go to