Leonard Mota Ovalles has already lived a challenging life.
The 33-year-old Providence father has lived on the street, has struggled with substance use disorder, and has served time in prison.
“I was in there for about six months,” he said, explaining he served time for domestic violence. “It was a bad patch in my life, I guess. It happened shortly after I lost my younger brother, which also led me to substance abuse.”
Now, as a graduate of the first Green Reentry Job Training Program, he has something to celebrate.
Ovalles was among seven of the graduates in the six-week pilot program, offered by Garden Time, in Providence. The program is backed by ONE Neighborhood Builders and is a partnership with Groundwork Rhode Island, the Providence Neighborhood Planting Program, and OpenDoors, which provided classroom space.
Garden Time was one of 16 organizations to receive a grant from the Central Providence Health Equity Zone, convened by ONE Neighborhood Builders. The program provided weekly stipends to the participants.
Garden Time has been working with incarcerated people for about 10 years, training some 300 incarcerated men and women to become skilled gardeners.
After getting out of prison about four years ago, Ovalles said he lived on the street and used opiates, before eventually deciding to straighten out his life. He received assistance from the Providence-based Haus of Codec and a counselor, who connected him with Garden Time. He credits the program for turning his life around, and he has now secured a new job at The Compost Plant in Providence.
Ovalles, who also gave an emotional speech during the Nov. 5, 2021 graduation ceremony hosted by Open Doors, described the hardships in his life as both a curse and a gift because they ultimately led him to this program.
“[The] program’s amazing,” Ovalles said. “I learned so many things from it. It gave me so many useful tools. It connected me to very important people, employers. They helped out with many things, they supplied laptops, boots. They went above and beyond. So it’s on you to do what you need to do.”
“[The] program’s amazing,” he said. “I learned so many things from it. It gave me so many useful tools. It connected me to very important people, employers. They helped out with many things, they supplied laptops, boots. They went above and beyond. So it’s on you to do what you need to do.”
The ceremony was marked by a few tears and much adulation, as some three dozen family, friends, and supporters celebrated the achievements of the graduates.
It has always been a dream of Garden Time to have a program to help people when they get out of prison, said Kate Lacouture, Garden Time’s cofounder and Executive Director.
Lacouture said they focused the Green Reentry Program on trees because landscaping is year-round work and pays a living wage, and planting trees can improve the community.
“We learned the concept of tree equity, or inequity, that there are big differences in the amount of tree canopies in neighborhoods around Providence and everywhere and that it correlates with socioeconomic levels and race,” she said. “Urban street trees help cool neighborhoods and lessen the effects of climate change. And over many years of future training programs, we hope to increase the tree canopy in the Silver Lake neighborhood, with the guidance of our awesome partner, the Providence Neighborhood Planting Program.”
ONE|NB Community Organizer Stephanie Moniz spoke to the graduates as a member of the board of Garden Time and as a participant in its program when she was incarcerated.
“I want you to know there is so much value in your stories,” said Moniz, who read from her self-published book “Resilient Mr. Ball.” “There is so much value in your experiences, and when you leave from here, don’t be afraid to show up and be your full self because that’s what you’re going to add to your community, that’s what you’re going to add to your workplace. And every time you have to start over, you’re starting over with new experience, and now you have a whole new community with you to help you along your way.”
Graduate Steven Mitchell read some poetry he had written about the program, and Cassie Tharinger, from Providence Neighborhood Planting Program, handed the graduates badges as they became members of Providence’s “community tree-keeper ranks.”
For more information about the program, visit https://www.gardentime.us/