Linda Geist
  • Marcy Weber, left, and master gardener Darra Simpson tend a community garden at the extension center in Cass County.Photo by Linda Geist
    Marcy Weber, left, and master gardener Darra Simpson tend a community garden at the extension center in Cass County.Photo by Linda Geist

HARRISONVILLE, Mo. –  Two years ago, Marcy Weber had lost custody of her children and was homeless, unemployed and in trouble with the law because of a drinking and drug problem that began at age 10.

Today, she and her children live in a home she bought. She owns a car, works full time, is drug- and alcohol-free, and has hope, thanks in part to the cooperative efforts of University of Missouri Extension, the Cass County Drug Court and Cass County Psychological Services.

Weber is “paying it forward” for mistakes she hopes are long behind her. Part of  the “Pay It Forward” project involved fundraising for a community demonstration garden tended by participants in the two county programs under the direction of MU Extension Cass County Master Gardeners.

Weber gathered donations of seeds, fertilizer, plants and cash for the garden. Six raised beds alongside the county extension center in Harrisonville provide fresh local produce for participants who often live in buildings that don’t have room for gardens. The gardens are used to teach horticulture, nutrition, cooking and food preservation.

Participants also learn teamwork and responsibility, said Weber. They learn that plans sometimes fail, such as when an untimely spring freeze killed their plants. The freeze reminded them that you start over again and do the best you can next time.

“They are realizing the magic of gardening” and how it relates to life, says master gardener Darra Simpson.

Weber says the drug court and the garden have helped her and other participants develop new friends and a good support system.  In addition, extension offers her access to community resources to help her get back on solid ground.

Shannon Hiser, clinic director at Cass County Psychological Services,  said the program helps participants improve self-esteem. “I see excitement and joy after they get to participate in the garden,” she said.

Volunteers tend the garden, which contains vegetables, fruit and herbs. They can take produce for family meals or use it in Cooking Matters classes taught by extension nutrition specialist Susan Mills-Gray. The free six-week cooking class focuses on basic techniques and shopping with health and budget in mind.

A meal is prepared weekly in class and participants receive ingredients for the dish to take home.

 Mills-Gray said participants learn basic life skills that many people take for granted. Changes don’t come quickly or easily for those who may have made a lifetime of poor choices, often modeled after behavior of friends and family. “Small victories equal long-term success,” Mills-Gray said.

David Hoffman, extension county program director, said participants gain confidence while gardening and are less likely to return to a life of drugs and alcohol.

“The drug court has a strong history of people who have completed the program becoming productive,” Hoffman said. Numerous agencies reach out to help participants make a fresh start. “As one participant told me, ‘Most people don’t invest in us.’” But that is no longer true. “We make a huge impact.”

Jimmy Odom, Cass County associate commissioner, said the county supports the garden because of its positive impact in the community.  “I was glad that we have a part in helping change lives,” he said.

Sponsors of the garden include the drug court, psychological services, City of Harrisonville, Cass County Soil and Water Conservation District, Lincoln University Extension’s Small Farm Outreach Program, Master Gardeners and the Steve Orr Memorial.