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Greenhouse grows trees and fosters hope for troubled teens

It's not often you find detainees at a juvenile detention center caring for trees or learning how to run a greenhouse. Those who work at the Doņa Ana County Juvenile Detention Facility say it's a big step for some of their teens just to work with one another, but it's now happening as part of a New Mexico State University cooperative extension program.



Candice Camuņez, a nutrition educator with the Doņa Ana County Extension Office, works in the greenhouse with detainees Fabian Yazzie (left) and Zachary Davis (right). (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

"I brag about them all the time," said Candice Camuņez about the juvenile offenders she teaches. As a nutrition educator with the Doņa Ana County Extension Office with a background in criminal justice, she's led the program for the last few months. "They are hard workers. They always want something to do."

Candice Camuņez, a nutrition educator with the Doņa Ana County Extension Office, works in the greenhouse with detainees Fabian Yazzie and Zachary DavisCamuņez said the program is designed to be therapeutic while also teaching life skills the teens can use after they leave. Currently, she is teaching the fundamentals of greenhouse safety and how to care for plants. Eventually, she wants to establish a classroom where the detainees would learn about the business and marketing side of running a greenhouse and earn certificates in greenhouse management.

The program relies heavily on grants and other funding through the state Legislature as well as New Mexico State University and the state Children, Youth and Families Department.

The program has run out of funding more than once, but Camuņez feels it is in a more secure place now. This is the first time they've been able to put together an extended string of classes. Much of the materials and equipment, including the plants, tools, gravel and a tool shed, has been donated by local businesses.

"We really appreciate the university and this program," said Mike Foster, a math teacher at the facility. "A lot of these kids are very high risk. This is a very big step for them, building a shed and watering plants."

Detainees at the center come from all across New Mexico. For some, their only chance to leave the detention building is to work in the greenhouse because they are considered a high risk.

Tanner Ruane is scheduled to be paroled in February. He works in the greenhouse twice a week. "It's pretty cool. When we are paroled, we can get these certificates and get a job when we get out. It seems pretty nice."

Ruane also said it's strange to see some people who continuously argue with one another in the detention center dorms working together. "Everyone seems to get along better out here," he said.

"I think it's nice what they started here. It's pretty good. It gives us a chance to learn about the plants," said Jesse Ortega, another detainee.

Camuņez hopes the work the teens are doing will start to pay off as early as next spring. That's when she and the detainees plan to use some of the plants grown in the greenhouse to landscape around the juvenile detention facility.