Andrew Milkey, Eagle Scout, helps with gardening for a 'second chance' at Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility
Photo courtesy of the Milkey family
You know that dark feeling when you're toiling away in your lonely corner wondering why you're doing something hard, that takes so long, with an effect you can't measure? Somehow you keep going because it's what you do and it's meaningful to you even if you're alone in the world. But then you hear that something you did made someone else's life a little bit better and it's like the clouds opened up to shine a sunbeam straight on you.
That's what gardening is, and what writing is. In writing, you cast a message in a bottle out into a sea of information. And once in a while someone picks it up, uses it to make something new, and sends something back. That's the luckiest feeling in the world and reason enough to keep a bottle collection going.
I recently heard from proud parents Patti and Kevin Milkey that their son, Andrew Milkey, had just completed his Eagle Scout project at the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti Township. Even though he was too young to be admitted as a visitor, Andrew earned the rank of Eagle Scout in May by raising money for and building raised bed gardens for women in the prison's horticultural program who have mobility challenges.
The Milkeys contacted me because Andrew read my story Growing food and redemption at the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility about the prison's horticulture program run by Ellen Baron. Andrew was inspired by Ellen's ability to provide a pathway for inmates to a second chance in life through gardening. And he was motivated to help when he learned about the gift that the women in the horticultural program give to the community by donating more than 12,000 pounds of the beautiful food that they grow to Food Gatherers.
Andrew says that after talking with Ellen he learned that "the inmates had very different backgrounds, but for some of them who stole something from our community or took something away, this horticulture program (which my garden boxes helped to improve and grow the program) was a way for the inmates to give back to the community! It was a way for them to help someone in rough or troubled times put fresh vegetables on the table."
He says, "I felt like I was part of something bigger than just two garden boxes. I was a part of an organization which gives to the community and continues to give back to the community year after year in the fight against hunger. To me this was very special, and it made me happy that I chose this project which started off as an idea in a news article on a Sunday morning."
From Ellen, to her horticulture students, to Food Gatherers, to me, to Andrew, and back to the incarcerated women. From prison, an island that is difficult to enter or exit, Ellen and her students have chosen work to make others' lives better. And it's a gift that comes back again and again in ways that they cannot and none of us can possibly know.
Andrew says, "The dedication Ellen showed and her ideas for the program, which was giving inmates a second chance, really touched me. I felt as though it was important to help this program which might not really get the attention from the outside community." I hope someone will find Andrew's message and send something back.
NOTE: Ellen Baron and Food Gatherers need your support. The last time I spoke with her, the small amount of funding for Ellen's program had been significantly reduced. And along with increased demand in summer from kids out of school, Food Gatherers is expanding its facility. They are asking community members to help with funds and with summer food drives.
Interview with (now) 18-year-old Andrew Milkey from Dexter
- Why have you been a boy scout for 12 years?
"I've always dreamed of becoming an Eagle Scout. Ever since the first court of honor I attended, I always hoped that would be me one day. I've always enjoyed scouting and I have gotten a lot out of the program. With Eagle being the highest award that you can earn, it is a good way to show all the accomplishments and activities you have done throughout the years."
- What have some of the highlights of Boy Scouting been for you?
"Highlights would definitely be all of the outings. Some of my favorite have been sleeping on a submarine, summer camp, hiking along Pictured Rocks for 50 miles in a week where it rained six out of seven days! So many memories came from that trip, though it was well worth it! And small things from Cub Scouts, like pinewood derby, always have special memories to me."
- How would you describe what an Eagle project is supposed to do, what impact should it have?
"Eagle projects are suppose to enhance or benefit a organization or community. The range of projects is quite broad but most of the projects are done for an organization around your area.
"My priority for my project was to select a project that would give back to the community in a way. Some people have done mulching of a pathway in a park, which is a great project, don't get me wrong. But I wanted to do something that would continue to give back for many years down the road, not just after two years, lose color and meed more mulch. I love my town of Dexter, I truly do. Anything that I could do to enhance or support it, I wanted to do!"
- What about the women's gardening work inspired you to help them?
"It wasn't until I met with Ellen for the first time that I really got excited about the project and really felt like it was making an impact. The dedication Ellen showed and her ideas for the program, which was giving inmates a second chance, really touched me. I felt as though it was important to help this program which might not really get the attention from the outside community."
- What did you know about the issue of hunger in our community before working with Ellen and the horticulture program?
"I knew there was an issue with hunger in our community from other sources and prior knowledge. But I did not truly understand the scale to what it was. For the inmates to give back thousands of pounds of produce an still have a need for more meant that there was a bigger problem at hand. At that some nights people and family's were still going to bed hungry which I thought needed to be changed. With my project if it could just help one more family then it did the year before, then I feel my project was a success and that I was helping a community member who might not of gotten that help before."
- How did you raise the money for your project?
"I raised money for my project from family and friends. There was a overwhelming amount of support I got back for my project which allowed me to do a lot more for the program then what I originally planned."
- What did you learn from Ellen or from the women in the horticulture program that changed you or surprised you?
"Ellen was able to come to my court of honor ceremony and speak on behalf of the horticulture program and explain what was done for it. She was very emotional about the project and that really did touch me and make me feel as though I made a difference not only to her program but the community as well. She made a statement during her speech which I really liked: 'This project is a way for the inmates to give back to the community which they stole from,' and I liked that for a few reasons.
"The inmates had very different backgrounds, but for some of them who stole something from our community or took something away, this horticulture program (which my garden boxes helped to improve and grow the program) was a way for the inmates to give back to the community! It was a way for them to help some one in rough or troubled times put fresh vegetables on the table.
"When Ellen made that comment it did surprise me. I felt like I was a part of something bigger then just two garden boxes. I was apart of an organization which gives to the community and continues to give back to the community year after year in the fight against hunger. To me this was very special and made me happy I chose this project which started off as an idea in a news article on a Sunday morning."
Kim Bayer is a freelance writer and culinary researcher. Email her at kimbayer at gmail dot com.