Making kids smile with pumpkins
While in search of the great pumpkin last week, I veered off to the Steele County Cetention Center in Owatonna, which houses prisoners for Dodge and Steele counties as well as other areas, of all the places.
The jail is not exactly the place where one would think of finding pumpkins. But there behind the facility, I found Sheriff Lon Thiele, Jail Administrator Jodi Bushey and Jail Programs Coordinator Cindy Fowler, along with others, getting their hands dirty and loading up pumpkins by the dozens for area charities.
Jail officials had just harvested pumpkins of all shapes and sizes from the quarter-acre patch located outside the detention center.
Perhaps what’s most intriguing about this story is how the pumpkins come to fruition. They are grown and taken care of by jail inmates as part of their work release privileges. Fowler supervises the inmates while they work in the pumpkin patch and accompanying garden of vegetables.
“This is a program to get them to do something beneficial for the community,” Fowler explained. “They get a sense of community because they are giving back. It’s a good feeling for them, especially knowing the kids will benefit from this,” she said.
Through Fowler’s program, she works closely with the inmates in helping them turn their lives around.
“We talk to them about giving back, and that’s truly what fulfills you,” she said, adding it is nice to feel good about something coming out of the detention center.
Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Owatonna came by with a pick-up and hauled away pumpkins for its fall festival, coming up on Oct. 23 at the Owatonna Airport.
“This is the highlight of our fall festival for the kids,” said Michelle Redman, executive director of BBBS.
The organization helps match adults with children between the ages of 5 and 14 for community-based mentoring relationships. Last year alone Big Brothers paired up 529 children in Dodge, Steele, Rice and Waseca counties. The group’s goal is 547 this year.
“We’re always looking for more mentors, especially men,” Redman said, noting there are currently 185 children on the waiting list for mentors. “The need is great.”
Anyone interested in mentoring can reach out to contact BBBS at 507-451-5922 or bbbsofsouthernmn.org.
Sheriff Thiele said the jail’s pumpkin patch is just “another example of how the jail can benefit the community with certain programs.”
The jail has donated pumpkins to BBBS for eight years.
“We just put a lot of smiles on kids’ faces,” said a gleaming Thiele as he handed over another pumpkin. Of the 600 pumpkins grown this year, about half went to BBBS.
In addition to the pumpkins, the jail donates all the vegetables grown to the area food shelf and local churches. The inmates mostly grow peas, beans, potatoes, cabbage, broccoli and onions.
“It puts that work ethic (into the inmates) where they can focus on something other than sitting,” Thiele said.
Fowler said she doesn’t have programs getting inmates to work outside.
“Who doesn’t like to get their hands dirty and work in the dirt?” she said.
Added Bushey, “It feels good to do something positive.”
It’s refreshing to see jail officials going in hot pursuit of helping, and not punishing, some inmates who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law.