Sitting at picnic tables in the evening sun, a couple dozen people ate dinner together, family style, under the shade of a willow tree.
The table decorations — all cloth and mismatched china and freshly picked greenery — evoked an idyllic summer meal, fit for Pinterest, and the guests, who before dinner didn’t know each other, fell into the easy patter of small talk.
Laughs erupted, and strangers held large platters of colorful food for one another so their neighbors could serve themselves. It was the very picture of small-town community, of folks coming together to share in a harvest and enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor.
But the fun twist of this dinner was that none of the people under the willow had anything to do with the food, or the vegetables, or even the tables themselves. The whole dinner was a gift from the Flathead Valley teenagers participating in the Trellis Project through the Center for Restorative Youth Justice (CRYJ) in Kalispell.
Sure, the dedicated teens had the supervision of Kalispell Regional Medical Center Head Chef Seth Bostick, as well as that of the Trellis Project staff, but really, the dinner and its creation were the results of their hard work.
Participants in the Trellis Project come from several groups: CRYJ; the Care Farm Program, which offers people with disabilities the chance to learn and socialize in agricultural settings; and student volunteers from Montana Academy in Marion.
Tracy Roberts runs the project for CRYJ, and took the existing idea of a supper club hosted by the students and ran with it when she joined the organization last winter.
“The idea is to give kids tangible mind-body tools so they can learn to self-regulate and have self-care practices,” Roberts said during a brief break in preparations leading up to the July 27 dinner. “Ultimately, this allows youth to have opportunities to engage in the community in a meaningful way.”
That’s basically the idea behind restorative youth justice in general, CRYJ Executive Director Burket Kniveton said.
“Instead of focusing on the crime, what we focus on is the harm that was caused and how to we repair that harm and move forward,” Kniveton said.
The Trellis Project brings kids from all over the valley together on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to grow and harvest food in the huge garden, which is located behind the Central Kitchen at Kalispell Middle School, as well as run a weekly market stand, practice yoga, and participate in therapeutic workshops.
The market stand runs from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and the vegetables are available; the prices are set at donations and “whatever you can afford to give.”
Rachel Grant works as the garden manager. Grant comes to the Trellis Program via the Care Farm Program, and said the mix of kids mingling in the garden allows them to meet people they may not hang out with otherwise.
The students also interact with retired and senior volunteers who offer decades of gardening and farming experience.
“It’s awesome,” Grant said. “Once you get here, everybody is engaging in the same programming.”
Each day starts with intention, meaning they gather in a circle and bring everyone’s focus to the present. The July 27 supper club started the same way, with attendees and students and administrators offering up how they felt before the dinner.
Many expressed gratitude for being invited and that such a program can exist in the Flathead Valley. Partnerships between all the entities involved make it possible, and such relationships don’t always exist in bigger cities, Kniveton said.
Anthony, 18, who asked not to be identified with his last name, works as an intern with CRYJ and started with Trellis about three weeks ago. He’s enjoyed the gardening, but also the group workshops, where he felt he had an impact on other people.
“It’s been really cool,” he said.
Haven Gunderson, 17, is working as an apprentice in the Trellis Program through CRYJ, and has participated in two dinners thus far. While there has been “a lot of gardening” involved, it’s been worth it because they get to see their products make people happy, like when Gunderson works at the market stand and gets to provide vegetables to people who need food.
“It’s good,” he said. “It’s nice being able to sell something that you helped procure.”
Shareen Springer, the former executive director at CRYJ, said the supper club idea happened after a similar dinner when the teens were allowed to help, and it gave them a sense of importance. Since then, the idea has evolved into the July 27 event, a monthly affair that nearly had Springer in happy tears.
“We learn powerful lessons in gardens and kitchens,” she said after the meal, as the evening closed with another circle of intention. “(This program allows these kids) to be part of something that matters in hopes that they will feel like they matter.”
For more information on the Trellis Project, including how you can support it or to reserve a seat at supper club, visit www.restorativeyouthjustice.org/trellis-project or call Tracy Roberts at (406) 257-7400.