Several teenagers are already hard at work in the gardens on this sleepy morning in Bay St. Louis.
A train loudly rattles by in the distance as one teen raps whatever it is that’s playing through his headphones, oblivious to the roar. He pulls weeds from a large flower bed. Another teen slips on bright pink gloves before patting the soil around newly planted flowers.
It a scene that’s become a new normal in downtown.
What started as just an idea — plucked from an article on rehabilitating adults in California — has turned into a flourishing community garden on Court Street, just a couple blocks away from the water.
The garden has a slight twist, however. While the community is encouraged to participate, Ruth’s Roots is geared toward helping juvenile offenders.
“It gives these kids an ability to see that even where they are in life, they can still help other people,” said Hancock County Youth Court Judge Elise Deano. “I think that’s very, very important for us and for them.”
One big difference from a traditional community garden is people can’t exactly lay claim to a plot of dirt — instead, the teens do the bulk of the work.
“The kids get to use what talents they have, which may be art, marketing, sales or good ideas about spacial awareness and what we can do with something,” Deano said.
Built on the land of the former Ruth’s Cakery, a Hurricane Katrina casualty, Deano received a blessing from the owner, Jim Thompson, to name the garden after his wife.
Since its debut in fall 2016, Ruth’s Roots has been doing its namesake proud.
Thanks in part to the Mississippi State Extension Service, Ruth’s Roots houses rows of salad tables, long garden boxes that will eventually be turned into “Mississippi” gardens with the state’s cash crops.
A chicken coop, rabbits, bee hive, worm farms, butterfly garden, community library and iron statues are all contained within the colorful walls of Ruth’s Roots. A vertical garden and greenhouse are on Deano’s to-do list.
“It just keeps growing and growing,” Deano said, standing on a “yellow brick road” that some of the teens painted to welcome the community into the garden.
While bright colors initially jump out at bystanders, there’s much more happening on the property than is obvious from walking down Court Street.
Some of the volunteers are high school students who need community service hours, but many of the juveniles have previously gotten into trouble. The garden is a facilitator, of sorts, to get them headed in the right direction.
“A lot of these kids get to the point where they’ve done a few bad things and think they’re a bad kid,” she said. “They’re not.
“When you have never seen normal; when you’ve never seen love; when you have never seen happy, it’s hard for me to sell that to you.”
That’s where Ruth’s Roots really flourishes, she said.
“All these kids — including mine — need positive adult role models in their lives. Some kids don’t see that ever,” Deano said. “The hardest thing for me in the drug court is to tell them to stop doing drugs and then they go home to their parents and they’re doing drugs.
“That’s a hard thing to do and not cross the line and say lets not be like them; that’s not a good message.”
Deano said she starts out with a similar message for all of the teens.
“You’re driving the bus of your life. Life is easy,” she said. “If you make good decisions, you have a good life. If you make bad decisions, you have a bad life.
“It seems complicated but it’s really not at all. Everything you do is making good decisions and never letting yourself get sucked in.”
Breaking down barriers
The slow process of breaking down barriers — and preconceived notions — goes both ways.
“When you’re a judge on the bench, you have information in front of you, but when you come out here you get to know these kids, you get to see their gifts and talents, you get to see what they like and don’t like. And they get to see you as, hey, that’s a nice person on their side,” she said. “That’s a giant plus that helps me.”
Over the last 12 months, Deano said she has seen around 30-45 teens come through the garden. Some of them have already gone off to college to begin the next chapter of their lives — that’s where she said she sees the true magic from Ruth’s Roots.
“We have kids who are out of the program who come back and see us,” she said with a proud smile. “I think that never would have happened if they just saw me on the bench.”
Ruth’s Roots has work days at least once a month. During “planting season,” work ramps up to two or three times a month. Anyone who wants to make a donation or volunteer in the garden is encouraged to contact organizers through Ruth’s Roots Facebook page.
About the series
Our Kind of People is a feature in the Sun Herald and at SunHerald.com that spotlights South Mississippi people whose life or work is an inspiration to others.