It's the warmest, kindest thing that the prisoners could do for these kids because they just absolutely love the pumpkins. You can see the grins on their faces when they pick their pumpkins and they hold them so. —Cari Curtis, aide at Jordan Valley School
MIDVALE — Five-year-old Marley Eliason sat and rolled a pumpkin back and forth with her mother, Jana, on the front lawn of Jordan Valley School.
Marley’s twin brother, Carl, watched while he held on tightly to a pumpkin half his size.
Marley and about 155 other students with severe disabilities got to wander through a makeshift pumpkin patch Monday to choose a pumpkin grown and donated by inmates at the Utah State Prison.
Students from preschool age to young adults meandered through the pumpkins, some snatching the first one they saw, some painstakingly examining a few before making a selection.
Many students were led by the hand or pushed around in wheelchairs by teachers and teachers’ aides like Cari Curtis, who has worked at Jordan Valley School for seven years.
“It’s the warmest, kindest thing that the prisoners could do for these kids because they just absolutely love the pumpkins,” Curtis said. “You can see the grins on their faces when they pick their pumpkins and they hold them so.”
The Utah Department of Corrections has 28 inmates who participate in what’s called the Green Thumb Program. The self-sustaining program provides an opportunity for the inmates to gain knowledge they can use when they get out of prison, but also to give back to the community.
“It’s one of the very, very few programs we have out there where the inmates can actually start giving back to the community before they get out,” corrections officer Todd Barszcz said.
The prison has about 10 greenhouses and a few gardens where inmates grow all types of flowers and vegetables, but the pumpkins are the main focus of the program, which was started more than 20 years ago.
Barszcz said the inmates are passionate about what they do and take pride in their work as they water, do pest control, handpick and wash the pumpkins.
The prison donates more than 1,000 pumpkins every year to children with disabilities at places such as Jordan Valley School, Primary Children’s Hospital, Shriner’s Hospital and Kauri Sue Hamilton School.
“I think it’s a win-win situation in that the prisoners get to give back, and this is an opportunity for our students to come out and pick whichever pumpkin they want,” said Mark Donnelly, Jordan Valley School principal. “They get excited, and it’s just another great opportunity for them to get that sensory input.”
While many of the children couldn’t say they were excited to choose a pumpkin, they looked happy as they picked one out or had one chosen for them.
“I just think the expressions on their faces are exciting,” Donnelly said. “It’s great to see. Most of our students are nonverbal, and so to see how they’re communicating with their eyes and with their face and with their expressions, I like to see that full gamut of expressions, and it’s wonderful.”
One boy was hesitant at first but let a smile spread across his face after an aide coaxed him into picking a pumpkin.
Four-year-old Jazmine Alvarado, who just started attending the school last week, wrapped her little arms around a pumpkin and told her teacher, “I found a big one! I’m going to paint it!”