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Growing Industry Skills

Friday, September 1, 2017
Article by: Certification News

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Inmates Earn Horticulture Professional Certification

It was one of the more unlikely places one would expect to see the pomp and circumstance of a graduation ceremony. Past the guard shack and deep into Florida’s heartland, roughly two dozen family members, prison officials and horticulture enthusiasts came together in a mid-century administration building located in the center of the Avon Park Correctional Institute to celebrate a career milestone for seven inmates.  

Proud planters -  Two Avon Park graduates show off plants inside one of four greenhouses they and other inmates are caring for as part of Institution's horticulture professional training program. 

On this balmy July morning, as the humidity begins to rise toward the increasingly intense sun, these graduates are being awarded their FNGLA Certified Horticulture Professional certification -- a distinction at least six months in the making. The program’s curriculum includes identifying more than 185 different plant varieties and properly caring for plants.

A side benefit for many in the program is also the peace that comes with putting one's hands in the soil.

“Whoever came up with the saying ‘Therapy through plants’ got it exactly right,” one graduate offers prior the ceremony’s start.

The program is collectively administered by the Florida Nursery, Growers & Landscape Association, the University of Florida IFAS/Highland County Extension and the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs whose officials each dedicate time and resources.

The low security prison established its nursery in 1963. Inside the nursery are four greenhouses, a propagation house and a shade house. There, inmates learn to take care of a variety of plants at each stage.

Inside the operation looks identical to what one might expect of a commercial garden center. There’s pot after pot of shrubbery, foliage and rows of hanging, colorful orchid varieties. With the plants, the prison holds two plant sales per year which raise funds for the program to continue.

Back inside the administrative building on this particular morning, during his remarks at the small commencement gathering, Avon Park Nursery Officer Tommy Sauls sentimentally congratulates the graduating class.

“My enjoyment comes from watching these guys succeed,” he says. “Our main objective at the institution is to present the inmates something before they get out… to where they have a job skill where it can deter them from the lifestyle they had before.”

Officer Sauls also seizes the optimistic spirit in the air to offer a little advice: “Take what you got today and then when you get out, go ahead and you can provide for yourself, your family -- and do great things with what you got."

Avon Park is one of three correctional facilities in the state of Florida to offer the FCHP certification and training program. Federal Correctional Institution - Coleman and Federal Correctional Institution, Marianna are the other facilities with FCHP training programs. Eligibility for each program depends on one's good behavior, and willingness to commit to the at-times grueling physical commitment.

Charlie Reynolds, a master gardener through the University of Florida’s UF/IFAS, has been volunteering as the program teacher at Avon Park for the past three years.

Reynolds, as he addresses his graduating class, looks back at the ground they’ve covered to get here.

“You guys have taken the ball and ran with it,” he says.

Merry Mott, director of certifications and career development at FNGLA, also takes the opportunity to congratulate the men.

“You’re joining a group of almost 2,500 other FNGLA Certified Horticulture Professionals, so you’re in good company.”

After the ceremony, the families are invited to tour the nursery as the men showcase how they care for plants from cuttings to fully grown material. The men each take turns proudly pointing out the tasks they’ve been charged with.

Now that they’ve earned their certification, the men will continue to work in the nursery as a way to keep current on their CEU requirement for the certification. So, when each man is released, the hope is they will have a marketable skill to push past whatever circumstances they faced before they arrived at Avon Park.

Graduates - Avon Park inmates celebrate completing horticulture training course in which they earned their FNGLA Certified Horticulture Professional certification. FNGLA PHOTO

As the ceremony winds down and graduates soak up the remaining time with their families enjoying peanut butter cake and punch, one prison guard, acting on the spirit of the occasion, commands the room’s attention, telling the men he wasn’t planning on offering any words, but was moved by their achievements to address them “man-to-man.”

As he paced the room, looking each man in the eye, the prison guard spoke from his heart, encouraging them to move past the mistakes of the past, and to only let them be defined by their new achievements.

His parting words articulating the hopeful spirit which has dominated the morning: “It shows that you can work well with others. We hope that you’ll take what you’ve learned here,” he says. “There’s a good living to be made with this certification. Use it.”

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