In the realm of gardening rock stars, Tampa ag teacher Allen Boatman was a crossover sensation. His plant sales drew crowds of fans who sometimes knocked each other down in their rush to grab beautiful, budget-priced specimens. When Allen and his students launched a line of homegrown Jailhouse Fire hot sauces, the Falkenburg Road jail horticultural program went viral. They made national TV in the United States — CNN, Fox Business News — and Canada, and newspapers from Taiwan to Latvia. "I like to think it was because the sauces were good," Allen says. "But the hook was, they came from a jail."
Sunday marks one year since the horticulture program was snuffed without fanfare, another victim of recessionary budget cuts. It went so quietly, gardeners have been emailing me for months to ask when Allen plans his next sale.
Now I can tell them — it's Saturday. New location: Tampa's Lavoy Exceptional Center for kids with cognitive, emotional and physical challenges.
"I'm back where I'm supposed to be," says Allen, a 43-year-old Bible college dropout.
His new gig started July 31.
"Yes, I was sad, heartbroken, when they ended the program at the jail. That was my baby. But this? This is even better," he says of his new job at Lavoy. "Ever notice that those who go through the most effort and hard times are those you really get close to? It's beginning to be that way here, just like at the jail."
By all accounts, Mr. Boatman is a strict taskmaster. But he also has a down-to-earth sense of humor and a heart for the underdog. He's not a good fit in traditional classrooms, he says. He needs creative wiggle room.
Over 14 years at Hillsborough County's Falkenburg Road jail (and before that, Orient Road jail) he grew the horticulture program from less than 1 acre to nearly 7, with a 5,400-square-foot greenhouse. The inmates' vegetable garden fed Metropolitan Ministries' homeless families 25 pounds of produce a week. Money from plant and hot sauce sales — about $13,000 a year — bought fertilizer, equipment, even computers for other jail classes.
His students gained job skills, vocational certification, futures.
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Allen was one of more than 60 full- and part-time school district employees teaching inmates cabinetry, culinary arts, sewing, computer technology and GED test preparation, says Jan Bates, the former inmate programs manager.
There are only about five teachers remaining, she says, four of them dedicated to juveniles.
The job was Allen's first after graduating from the University of Florida's horticulture program at age 30. By then, he'd given up on a Bible degree and premed school, been a steelworker in the Navy, served in the Army, and gotten married. (He and his wife Sandra have two children, Sara, 10, and Jess, 7.)
"All of my different vocations jelled in that opportunity," he says. "I'd been in the military police. I'd done youth ministry. I love working with plants. I believe God has a plan and he had spent all that time preparing me for that job."
He's still pen pals with a former student at the jail. Others, he says, were released and got jobs or started their own businesses; many never returned to Falkenburg Road jail. Except for one notable exception.
Adrian Miller, a chronic offender who'd been locked up year after year, showed up last October.
"It was my last plant sale," Allen says. "He came to buy plants. He was in his work uniform."
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Memories like that mean a lot. But today, Allen has a new focus.
"Does anybody remember the word we were working on yesterday?" he asks at the start of his third-period class recently.
Eight students stare at him, stumped. He prods, hints. Nothing.
"Maintenance," he finally tells them. "Maintenance is taking care of things and fixing them if they need to be fixed. . . . What three things do we maintain?"
And so begins a review of all the lives depending on them.
"What creatures do we have to maintain?" Allen asks.
"Fish," says 16-year-old Steven Humphrey.
"What do we need to do for the fish?" Allen asks.
"We have to feed them," Steven answers.
"Right! What else do we have to do for them?"
Steven thinks. Hard.
Allen hints: "What do we have to do with the water because they pee and poop in it all day?"
Titters, giggles and everyone's attention.
"Change it," Steven answers, smiling.
Next, the class heads outside for some chicken and goat maintenance. A hen escapes the coop and laughing students peel off to chase her. Another student finds an egg in a nest and gently cradles it in her hand.
"Everything they learn in this class is a life-changing experience," says Ruth Gonzalez, the paraprofessional who moves from class to class with this group of students.
"Some of our kids, with the tools we give them, they could help in a nursery or volunteer at an animal shelter. And when they learn how to take care of the animals, they learn how to take care of themselves.
"Mr. Boatman doesn't let them slack. He doesn't settle for 'I don't know.' Now, every time they see a seed, they want to plant it."
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Allen's instructional goals for his students are: 1. Learn to grow and sell plants, and 2. Gain a broad knowledge of agriculture.
But he knows that's not realistic for everyone.
"For some who don't speak, maybe it's saying some words," he says. "I worked with a student yesterday for a half-hour on sweeping. We'll work on that again today. If I can get him to move a broom one way and then the other, that'll be a year's worth of goal."
What he considers his greatest mission, though, won't be easily quantified. It can't be ticked off on a form, and it won't be found on a budget worksheet.
"The biggest thing is for all of them to realize they have more potential than they're told they have, or they think they have," Allen says.
"Just like at the jail."
Reach Penny Carnathan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find more of her gardening stories and news on her blog, www.digginfladirt.com, or join the her and other gardeners chatting on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt.