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JustServe volunteers help build gardens with former inmates

Clients at two sober-living homes in Utah are learning and benefitting from backyard gardens

Vegetables in a garden at Myers Place in Riverton, Utah, run by the Foundation for Family Life
Vegetables and flowers flourish in a backyard garden at Myers Place, a sober-living home in Riverton, Utah, run by Foundation for Family Life., on Aug. 24, 2022. The gardens were built with the help of JustServe in May. | Joseph White

Like in any good garden in Utah in August, the zucchinis have grown quite large and the corn is about ready to harvest in the backyards of two homes run by the Foundation for Family Life. But the vegetables are just a side benefit of the gardens.

The homes in the city of Riverton are sober-living reentry facilities, serving clients who are transitioning from incarceration. The foundation’s executive director, Joseph White, said his staff thought it would be beneficial to have a garden experience from beginning to end — to work for something and watch it grow.

The soil was prepared, the seeds planted, the water system installed and other work all done by volunteers and clients over two Saturdays in May. White said it was all possible because of JustServe, a website and app that lists service projects and connects organizations with volunteers. 

JustServe volunteers, clients and staff work to install the irrigation system for a backyard garden at Vine Place in Riverton, Utah, on May 21, 2022. | Joseph White

White posted two projects on JustServe — one for May 21 and one for May 28 — so that each of the homes could have a garden. He said quite a few volunteers showed up, including some from Utah County, and a big group from a ward in the Daybreak area. A woman in the ward had seen the project and invited others to go with her. 

A family from the city of Sandy helped as well — White said the parents have their children choose a service project from JustServe once a month, and their 11-year-old son spotted the “Build a Garden” project and picked that one. 

Clients from the homes worked with the volunteers to build and plant the gardens together. The first day of the project was also the one-year sobriety mark for one of the clients. 

“We took a break and had him share a little about his story, about getting shot and surviving that process and being on the road to recovery,” White said. “I had a guy who came up to me later who had come up to volunteer from Utah County, and he was also in recovery himself. He said he was working with his bishop to go on a mission and wanted to give back and serve.”

JustServe volunteers build a garden with clients and staff of Myers Place, a sober-living home belonging to Foundation for Family Life in Riverton, Utah, on May 28, 2022. | Joseph White

On the second Saturday, the rain threatened, but White said they decided to have faith. They got the garden in before it started to rain. And a few women in recovery also spent time building the garden with the volunteers and enjoyed the process.

“The thing that is exciting to me about JustServe is that this is a way to bring together people from the community regardless whether they are members of the Church of Jesus Christ or not,” White said. “They had a chance to come and connect with these people in recovery, and they want to serve and give back however they can.”

The hard work included scraping the ground, drilling pipe, moving topsoil, shaping the rows, shoveling mulch, planting seeds and installing drip lines. 

“It was quite rewarding to see it come together and to start watering before the JustServe volunteers left,” said White, adding that the clients told him how much they were impressed by the gardens and the support from the community. 

Pipes for the garden drip irrigation system are tested at Myers Place, a sober living home in Riverton, Utah. | Joseph White

The service projects in May have had a lasting impact, long after the work to put in the gardens was over.

Now that the vegetables are flourishing, the lessons and work being done at the two homes are coming full circle. Progression levels for the clients in their recovery are “soil, seed, sprout, plant.” 

“Those first four levels are the foundation of recovery, and to be able to see that in live action has been amazing,” said White.

Tomatoes growing at Vine Place, a sober living home in Riverton, Utah
Tomatoes grow on vines at Vine Place, a sober living home run by Foundation for Family Life in Riverton, Utah, on Aug. 24, 2022. The clients helped build the gardens with JustServe volunteers in May. | Joseph White
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