Just to the west of Maryville Academy's school buildings, along Central Road in Des Plaines, lies an expansive garden with separate plots for more than 20 varieties of fruits and vegetables.
From the traditional tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, beans and cucumbers, to herbs and summer fruits -- including watermelon, cantaloupe and a strawberry patch -- all of them were planted and tended by students.
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The garden is part of a horticulture therapy program at Maryville's Jen School, which opened three years ago and offers adolescent boys therapeutic and educational services in a residential setting.
Currently, nearly 50 teenage boys attend the school, including those who live on the campus and some day students from the community.
The garden has particularly therapeutic benefits for the boys in Maryville's St. George program -- one of four tracks at the school -- who have developmental disabilities and some forms of mental illness.
"It's calming," says Principal Anne Craig. "And it's healthy. Before we started this, most of them didn't know much about vegetables or where they came from."
During the spring and early summer, they worked one day a week with a master gardener from the University of Illinois Extension Service, who came out to help them nurture their plants.
Last month, they returned to classes after their summer break and found their garden bursting with fresh vegetables.
"They do everything, from planting to harvesting and cleaning," says their teacher, Alexis Boylan. "They're learning a lot about organic gardening."
As a culmination, they harvested their bounty and set up a farm stand in front of the school building, selling what they had harvested to staff and family members. Students carefully counted the money and bagged the tomatoes for customers, as well as the jars of strawberry jelly they made.
"Some of these boys have to count aloud at such a slow pace that it is laborious for them," says staff member John Norman. "But they will need these simple skills when they leave us."
Leftovers from the sale were taken into the school building where they were added to the salad bar that is available to students every day.
"We offer an experiential-based curriculum with lots of hands-on projects," says Craig. "This brings it all home, with the social skills involved, the exchange of money and just the gardening itself.
"When you get out into the garden and out of the traditional classroom setting," Craig adds, "it brings a whole different dimension to learning."
She points to the crop of eggplant still growing in the garden, and she proudly describes the eggplant Parmesan that the students enjoyed after tending the vegetable plants.
"They actually ate eggplant," Craig adds. "Now, I think that's an accomplishment."