'A perfect opportunity': Georgia officials hope new aquaponics garden at Dalton youth detention center will inspire teens

Christian Heritage School students Kensly Wooten, right, and Yuli Uriostegui, center, explain the Aquaponic system they helped install to State Sen. Chuck Payne Monday at the Elbert Shaw Regional Youth Detention Center in Dalton.
photo Christian Heritage School teacher Anna Verhoeff, second from right, explains the Aquaponic system to Victor Roberts, right, Monday following the ribbon cutting at the Elbert Shaw Regional Youth Detention Center in Dalton. The ribbon cutting included Glenn Allen, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, and state Sen. Chuck Payne, seen, back center.

DALTON, Ga. - Next to a chain-link fence topped with rings of barbed wire, some Georgia officials walked into a greenhouse Monday afternoon, hoping the Elbert Shaw Regional Youth Detention Center's new addition can inspire teenagers on a hazardous path.

Funded by a federal grant, the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for an aquaponics garden. Boys and girls at the 30-bed center will manage the lab as part of their education. They will treat a 600-gallon, goldfish-filled tank and oversee herbs, peppers, tomatoes and lettuce in a grow bed and sump tank.

It's the first aquaponics garden at a youth detention center in Georgia.

"This is a perfect opportunity," Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Avery Niles said. "I hope we can do this in 25 other facilities."

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said gardens can teach children integrity and build a consistent work ethic. He added that aquaponics expertise leads to jobs. Pure Flavor, a Canadian company that grows tomatoes and cucumbers through aquaponics, broke ground on a 75-acre greenhouse in Fort Valley, Georgia, in 2017.

"There are job opportunities in this arena, way beyond what some here might understand," Black said.

Four high school students at Christian Heritage School built the garden this year. Anna Verhoeff, the aquaponics coordinator at the school, said the students in her elective class learn how to design a system and build the tanks and grow bed.

She said her students also have built aquaponics farms that are used in Jamaica, Swaziland and Mozambique. Verhoeff, who used to work as a horticulturist at the Ooltewah Nursery and Landscape Co., believes the garden is a good learning tool for students who are in the criminal justice system. It allows them to work outside of a classroom.

"I've seen students learn so much when they're out in the garden, being active, getting their hands dirty," she said. "It's amazing."

State Sen. Chuck Payne, R-Dalton, who previously worked as an officer at the youth detention center, told stories Monday about his time working with troubled boys. He said introducing students to new experiences can make a difference. He recalled a retreat in which he took boys to a lake, where they could cook out and swim. He said one boy told him he didn't know big public parks like that existed.

He also told the audience about running into a man in a store years later who recognized Payne as his former officer. The man was married with two children. Payne said the man grew from his time at the youth detention center.

"Every kid has value," Payne said. "Every child has value. The goal is to not un-teach every bad lesson they learned in their life but to give them new horizons."

Elbert Shaw Regional Youth Detention Center houses boys from Northwest Georgia, including Catoosa, Dade, Gordon, Murray, Walker and Whitfield counties. Part of the garden was funded by a $2,000 grant from the Georgia Shape School Nutrition and Physical Activity Program. The money originates from the U.S> Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Georgia Department of Public Health manages the grant locally.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.