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Farming program deters youths from joining gang

In a Calif. town, kids learn habits that apply to life

Manuel Jimenez, a small farm advisor, also runs a program in the 14-acre botanical garden in Woodlake, Calif., engaging youth in agriculture to teach them life skills and to avoid gangs. Gosia Wozniacka/ASSOCIATED PRESS/Associated Press

WOODLAKE, Calif. - When Manuel Jimenez first set eyes on the land below a levee, thick with brush and weeds, the one-time field worker envisioned a place where youngsters could escape the temptations of gang life and learn about the Central Valley’s most vital industry.

But, like many places in California’s farming belt, this Tulare County town of 7,280 flanked had few resources. Best known for its rodeo, Woodlake has been devastated by gangs. More than 40 percent of its families, many poor Latino immigrant farm workers, live in poverty.

During the past seven years, Jimenez found a way to teach hundreds of young volunteers farming techniques, work habits, and communication skills to prepare them for jobs or college. With creativity and help from the community, they turned 14 desolate acres into lush gardens of vines, vegetables, and fruit trees. And the local police chief credits the program, Woodlake Pride, with helping fight gang crime.

“We want to grow kids in our gardens, because we’ve seen what violence, drugs, and alcohol can do,’’ said Jimenez, who works as a small farm adviser with UC Cooperative Extension.

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For years, Jimenez had gathered children and planted flowers and vegetables in vacant lots. When the city purchased a railroad right-of-way on the northern flank of Bravo Lake, he offered to convert it into permanent gardens. The city provided land, water, and insurance.

A local farmer donated money for irrigation and snacks. Area companies donated tubing, fertilizer, and plants. And Jimenez took a sabbatical while his wife Olga, a retired packinghouse worker, organized the children.

The youngsters and Jimenez laid irrigation pipes in a mile-long trench. They designed a walking path and spread mounds of mulch with wheelbarrows. Then they planted banana trees and 1,600 roses.

Many stayed day after day, year after year. Jimenez brought donuts and hot chocolate. He joked and had long conversations with the children. He took them to dinner, the zoo, and hiking.

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“Everything Manuel did was interesting to me,’’ said Walter Martinez, who worked in the gardens during middle and high school and is now with UC Cooperative Extension.

One year, the children planted 20,000 zinnias to spell ‘Woodlake’ on the levee. Another year, they designed gardens encircled with sunflowers containing such dazzling plants that some visitors cried on seeing them.

On a recent November morning, the gardens burst with 130 varieties of roses, 60 types of grapes, 200 varieties of stone fruit, a cactus collection, rows of guava, mango, and papaya trees.

Jimenez and 10-year-old Roman Ramirez huddled next to tomato plants.

“Mijo, you need to cut here,’’ Jimenez said, demonstrating the use of pruning shears and referring to the boy as his son. Then he let Roman clip the plants.

The children - some as young as 8, although most are high-school age - find the gardens through word of mouth.

Though there are only 12 documented gang members in Woodlake, Police Chief John Zapalac said loosely affiliated groups of Surenos and Nortenos clash. Many children lack stability in their home life, he said, so they become “wannabe members,’’ sucked into the violence.

The program has helped steer many youngsters away from that path, the chief said.