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Providing Opportunity for Youth – Scotland County

Written by: Lea Efird

GrowingChange makes a difference in the individual lives of participants, as well as in the community as a whole. Youth cohorts are much less likely to be incarcerated and more likely to attend a college or trade school after participating in the program. These include Terrence Smith, who says that after being involved with GrowingChange, he can “handle himself in pretty much any situation, is more mature” and can become a “solution in his community, rather than a statistic.” The program’s model of youth leadership, prized by founder Noran Sanford, is a best practice for developing adolescents’ executive function and encouraging pro-social skills.



The Challenge 

How young people navigate the transition from childhood into adulthood is a fundamental indicator of societal progress and well-being. Being in school or the workforce connects teens and young adults with people, institutions and experiences that help them develop knowledge, skills, maturity and a sense of purpose required to live rewarding lives as adults. Disconnected youth is a term used to describe young people who are disconnected from both school and work who are ages 16–24. Approximately 3.4 million, or nearly 9 percent of all 16 to 24-year-olds in the nation, are chronically disconnected—after 16, they never attended school, went to college or worked. In 2018, 11.7 percent of US youth were disconnected, while North Carolina’s rate was 13.1 percent.

In Scotland County, NC 26% of youth are disconnected – double the state average. This disconnection correlates with other social factors that make life more difficult for youth, including a low high school graduation rate (78.4%), high adult poverty rate (37.6%), and high unemployment, particularly for those with lower educational attainment. Additionally, Laurinburg, the county seat, has one of the highest crime indexes (violent crimes per capita) in the nation, higher than 98.3% of other American cities and 2.5 times higher than the national average

Depression, anxiety and isolation are common among teens and young adults who are neither working nor in school, as are unhealthy behaviors including violence (i.e. being in physical fights), smoking cigarettes, and using marijuana. The limited education, lack of work experience, minimal professional networks and social exclusion of disconnected youth have consequences into adulthood that affect a range of well-being outcomes including earnings and self-sufficiency, physical and mental health, and relationship quality and family formation. In 2016, it was estimated that the lost revenue and social services investments for disconnected youth cost approximately $93 billion a year and $1.6 trillion over their lifetimes.

The Solution

GrowingChange in Laurinburg addresses disconnection and diverting youth from the criminal justice system in a unique way. The organization converted an old, unused prison in the county to a farm where youth train and work, learning sustainable agriculture skills while simultaneously receiving work experience and creating a community resource. The youth who were first involved in the project chose to flip the prison into a farm and remain involved with organizational decision-making to give them more investment in the process.

Participants in the pilot program, which ended in 2017, were previously involved in the criminal justice system, so the project represents an opportunity for them to reimagine their future prospects and avoid incarceration. Now, local youth from diverse backgrounds are also able to participate in GrowingChange. This site’s specific programs provide youth entrepreneurial development, giving them skills in beekeeping and vermicomposting, for example. The conversion includes transforming jail cells into aquaponic tanks, guard towers into climbing walls, the prison bus into a traveling museum, the old isolation chamber into a recording studio, and more. GrowingChange also provides job opportunities for returning combat veterans, who lead the youth on the farm while simultaneously working toward a degree in environmental science and sustainable agriculture from UNC-Pembroke. They have plans to expand the project to include a commercial kitchen for community use, as well as more community outreach and education programs to encourage locally-produced, sustainable agriculture and youth opportunities in that field.

The Players

GrowingChange operates the prison-flipping project and several partners collaborate in its mission of retraining youth, creating a sustainable farm, and investing in the community. Partners include the Scotland County Juvenile Crime Prevention Council, who work on different strategies to divert youth from justice system involvement and reduce crime in the community. The NC State Cooperative Extension branch in Scotland County partners with GrowingChange to provide agricultural knowledge and skills. In Scotland County, between 60 and 70% of land is used for agriculture. The farm is also a fieldwork and field trip site for Scotland County Schools, Richmond Community College, and UNC-Pembroke. GrowingChange works with NC A&T University on a “Prison-Flip Tool Kit,” in order to open-source their experience and assist more than 300 other communities in the nation with decommissioned prisons.

The Promise

GrowingChange makes a difference in the individual lives of participants, as well as in the community as a whole. Youth cohorts are much less likely to be incarcerated and more likely to attend a college or trade school after participating in the program. These include Terrence Smith, who says that after being involved with GrowingChange, he can “handle himself in pretty much any situation, is more mature” and can become a “solution in his community, rather than a statistic.” The program’s model of youth leadership, prized by founder Noran Sanford, is a best practice for developing adolescents’ executive function and encouraging pro-social skills, according to Patricia Cardoso, COO of Haven House. It also helps them be more successful in the program because they feel more invested in it and leads to creative problem-solving from those most familiar with the work.

Scotland County also benefits, as the produce grown on the 67-acre site is donated to food insecure families in the community. These sustainable farming initiatives are publicized in the community through the property’s education center. The community also benefits from the project’s restoration of the Lumber River watershed and creative reuse of an otherwise deteriorating brownfield site at the prison. Communities dealing with a series of complex issues – crime, unemployment, food insecurity, and youth disconnection – can benefit from creative solutions like GrowingChange. Its goals are to improve the community through its ripple effects: education, diverting youth from the criminal justice system, sustainable agricultural practices, and creating a culture of support for youth in the community.

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