SNot About the Blue Ribbon: Agriculture Program at Hanna Boys Center Teaches Responsibility and Personal Triumph

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Not About the Blue Ribbon: Agriculture Program at Hanna Boys Center Teaches Responsibility and Personal Triumph

Article and Photo by Rachel LaFranchi, Farm News Production Editor

Published December 1, 2015

Students at the Hanna Boys Center come from disadvantaged backgrounds and learn responsibility and team work by raising market sheep. Instructors Elizabeth Bjorklund, left with her newborn Dominic, and Naomi Singleton, right, help the boys reach their goals. Back row: Juan Contreras, Brian Huezo, Jesus Morales, Daniel Torres. Front Row: Bronson Katsanes, Axel Chavez.

It’s easy to take having pets for granted, but not everyone comes from a background where this is possible. Last summer, seven students had the opportunity to raise and sell market lambs at the Sonoma County Fair. Of these seven students, only two had ever had a pet and none had ever worked with livestock.

These seven students were teenage boys enrolled in the agriculture program at the Hanna Boys Center.  The center takes male students from 8th to 12th grade with a history of adversity in their life. These boys come to Hanna for many reasons including abuse, drug use, gang involvement, violence, homelessness and other challenges.

The boys apply to the program themselves with the support of their family. While they can stay all five years, most normally don’t. The students live on campus, and the school is a year-round program. The Hanna Boys Center includes a fully accredited high school but also offers students many other activities to participate in, including an agriculture program.

Currently there are 108 students at the school, but this varies throughout the year. The agriculture program is voluntary, and presently has 14 students enrolled. They started the year with more than 20 students, but for various reasons the program whittles itself down as it gets closer to fair time.

Agriculture in the Classroom

While the after school agriculture program where the boys have an opportunity to work with animals is optional, they also have high school agriculture classes.

The agriculture program and classes are overseen by Elizabeth Bjorklund. While on maternity leave, Naomi Singleton has been running the center’s agriculture program and had the opportunity to work with students at last year’s fairs.

The school has a campus garden with planter boxes they grow vegetables in, fruit trees and a small vineyard. The vegetables grown in the garden are taken to the school kitchen where they can be used for meals and salads. The grapes give students the practical experience of pruning and picking but are bottled by an outside source.

Market Lamb Projects

The 14 students that are enrolled in the ag program meet at the barn after school to work with the animals. Currently, the program has 10 ewes which lamb in January. They recently had a chicken project which they hope to start up again in the near future.
The boys meet four days a week after school in the spring (less in the fall) to work with the lambs and learn important aspects of a livestock project including what to look for in a market lamb.

The agriculture program emphasizes a hands-on approach. The boys are responsible for feeding the lambs every day, but also learn about the other real-life aspects of raising livestock. The boys have castrated the lambs with elastrator bands, docked tails, given vaccines and dewormed on top of their daily feeding and cleaning chores.

For the boys, the most exciting time of the years is in March when they pick out the lamb they’ll take to the fair. The hours they put into the ag project, including time spent cleaning the barn, determine the order in which they get to choose their animal.
Bjorklund and Singleton said the boys are very excited to pick out their own lamb and they have the opportunity to name the lamb if they want to. From the start of the program, it’s made clear the animals are market projects.

“I’m very clear and upfront about the purpose of the lamb: that it’s for meat/slaughter,” said Bjorklund. “It started out to be a tough issue for the boys last year.”

“But we prepare them for the auction, so most of them are ready to sell their animal,” said Singleton recalling last year’s fair.

Over the summer, the boys work with their lambs around three hour a day, walking them around campus and working with them in the pens.

In June, the boys take their project lambs to the Sonoma-Marin Fair. Singleton said last year’s students all did extremely well for the short amount of time they had to prepare for the fair.

“We start getting ready for the fair in April. Here you have to teach like they’re nine years old and fast-forward high school in just three months,” said Singleton. “They’re all ready to go and want to start working with the lambs in April. The difference between what they’re like before and after is just leaps and bounds better than I expected.”

Agriculture Program Teaches Goals and Responsibility Not Winning

Bjorklund noted that their students, who come into the program with no experience, are mixed with Sonoma County kids who have been around livestock their entire life and take competing at the fair very seriously.

“The program here is not about winning,” said Singleton, “it’s the boys reaching for a goal they never thought they’d be able to before. It’s about building character, responsibility and team work.”

And while neither instructor wants to say that they aren’t competitive, they know the program is about more than winning a blue ribbon. It’s about personal triumph. It’s about responsibility. It’s about team work and leaning to work with people from different backgrounds so they can all accomplish their goals.

And both instructors agree the boys went above and beyond accomplishing their goal last year. One boy went to Round Robin at the Sonoma-Marin Fair and another placed high enough to win money in the Born and Bred Challenge at the Sonoma County Fair.

“These boys have never touched an animal. It’s not about winning, but about the whole experience,” said Bjorklund. “I had a questionnaire last year and I asked ‘have you ever had a pet before?’. It’s something I take for granted, but most of them said no, they’ve never even had a dog. 

“Most of the boys are coming in from inner-cities, not knowing anything about sheep, that they have wool. What do you use a sheep for? Same with the chickens. They didn’t know about chickens, even the simple thing of laying eggs. They come in blind. When they go to the fair in Petaluma, they’ve never done that before.

“I was sitting in the bleachers of the Sonoma-Marin Fair last year,” recalled Bjorklund, “and all the boys are in their whites with their Hanna Center ties, and it’s like watching a completely different boy than the ones who started in the program. It’s all about personal triumph and all the boys are really proud of themselves. It’s pretty cool – it’s a big deal.”

For Students, It’s All About the Lambs

Bryan Huezo, a student in this year’s program, joined the program last summer. While he didn’t have a lamb to take to the fair, he attended the fair and was inspired by last year’s projects. He likes that the program is small and gives students like himself responsibility, but his favorite part of the program is actually working with the sheep.
Huezo’s family had a dog before he came to Hanna, but he said working with the sheep is a completely different experience. He is excited to have the opportunity to take his own lamb to the fair in the summer, and Bjorklund and Singleton said he’s been working hard to make sure he has the opportunity to show a lamb.

Another student in the program, Jesus Morales, said he enjoys learning about lambs. He wakes up every morning to feed with Bryan and likes the fact that the program allows them to get out of the house and be active. He likes being involved with agriculture and said the program helps students learn how to get along and work together.

While Jesus said the program is “pretty fun” he said the program only has the budget and space for lambs right now, but hopes they will be able to expand the program in the future.

Funding the Market Projects

The Hanna Boys Center agriculture program is funded by the school. The school pays for the feed, medical and other costs associated with raising the sheep, and in return the boys pay a flat fee of $300 for their lambs. However, bigger costs such as barn improvements are paid for by the program’s agriculture board.

In the future, the program hopes to expand their program to beef cattle, but they currently don’t have the proper facilities. They would like to re-launch their poultry program and are considering adding goats to the program.

The program is always seeking donations to help expand and better their program. To donate or become involved email Elizabeth Bjorklund at ebjorklund@hannacenter.org.

For more information on the Hanna Boys Center visit www.hannacenter.org.

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