GREEN, Ohio — A boy at the Compass Center proudly showed a Summit County, Ohio, judge the eggplants he was tending in the center's garden.
He was learning how to grow the vegetables — even though he didn't know what to do with them, said Juvenile Judge Linda Teodosio, who had sentenced the boy to an Ohio Department of Youth Services detention center.
"He didn't know much about eggplant, so I made the boys a tray of eggplant parmigiana. I think the ability to connect with caring adults is always a benefit for youth," Teodosio said of the faith-based center more commonly known as the "donkey farm."
The farm, where young felons learn to trust those in authority by working with live animals, is the centerpiece of the True North Ministries program. The nonprofit ministry offers young felons from all of Ohio's 88 counties an opportunity to learn new skills through outreach programs, vocational training and mentoring.
Never miss a local story.
The donkeys, bees and chickens the boys and young men care for are merely conduits for learning how to trust, True North Executive Director Becky Retzer said. Some of the ministry's 45 mentors, through their faith in God, are teaching youths to do jobs required on a working farm — skills they can use in the future, she said, but the lessons go much deeper. "It's more than about saving them. It's more about building relationships," Retzer said. "I want the kids to find their faith and to find God, but I also want them — whether they get to that point or not — to look at themselves as to who they can be and not what they've done."
It's one of the reasons volunteers use only first names when addressing the boys and don't ask about the crimes they have committed.
For a young felon to be eligible for the program, a detention center official must deem him ready for off-ground privileges, which is achieved by exhibiting a certain level of good behavior. In Summit County, Teodosio then decides which young felons would benefit from signing on to work at the farm.
"Most of the kids that participate in the program have done well at the Department of Youth Services and are able to attend as a positive incentive," said Teodosio, who said she views the program as a privilege to be earned.
Retzer, who formerly worked with youth offenders at the Summit County Juvenile Detention Center, established the ministry in 2002 and leased the property for the Compass Center in 2007.
The program has 200 volunteers who work with incarcerated young people throughout the state and makes more than 2,500 contacts each year through mentoring, outreach programs and the donkey farm. Youths can participate in the program one to three days a week up to three months, Retzer said.
The ages of participants range from about 17 to 21 years, said Shayne Rowlands, parole supervisor with the Ohio Department of Youth Services.
"The volunteers at the farm work on self-esteem and career readiness. They have employed three of our kids as landscapers who are on parole. They are able, besides paying them, to also mentor them as well," he said.
Grants from foundations and donations from local businesses and more than 60 churches finance the program.
On a recent day, a young man from Cuyahoga Hills Juvenile Correctional Facility in Warrensville Heights collected five freshly laid eggs from the farm's chicken coop — a daunting task for someone who had never before been close to a live chicken.
After gathering the eggs in a basket, he updated the figure — the number of eggs collected from the farm's eight hens in a year's time — on a chalkboard hanging on the coop to 890.
Nine miniature jennies (female donkeys) were roaming in the pasture unaware that Rusty, the only jack in the pack, was in a separate pen recuperating from surgery that would prevent him from making any more little donkeys.
Rusty has earned a reputation of sorts. For the past seven years, each young man that shovels manure or grooms or feeds the small burros leaves with a T-shirt that reads: "I survived a day with Rusty."
Property manager Dave Duffey is in charge of maintenance at the 15-acre farm, handing out assignments and teaching the young men how to do the work. He said the youths aren't the only people benefitting from the program.
"Not only does it help the kids, it helps me. I've learned that God can give you strength and help you learn to be more patient. It enables me to understand and help them," he said as he worked alongside his charges last month.
Antonio Boalden, a general activity therapist from Warrensville Heights who accompanied five youths, some from as far away as Cincinnati and Columbus, said the experience teaches the boys there are people who care about them.
"The program has a very positive effect on these kids. Most of them think people don't care. But they learn through mentoring and faith in God that people they never before met in their lives really do care," Boalden said.