By GOSIA WOZNIACKA
WOODLAKE, Calif. (AP) -- When Manuel Jimenez first set eyes on the land below a levee, thick with brush and weeds, the one-time field worker envisioned a place where youngsters could escape the temptations of gang life and learn about the Central Valley's most vital industry.
But, like many places in California's farming belt, this Tulare County town of 7,280 flanked by citrus groves had few resources. Best known for its annual rodeo, Woodlake has been devastated by gangs. More than forty percent of its families, many poor Latino immigrant farmworkers, live in poverty.
Over the past seven years, Jimenez found a way to teach hundreds of young volunteers farming techniques, work habits and communication skills to prepare them for jobs or college. With creativity and help from the community, they turned 14 desolate acres into lush gardens of vines, vegetables and fruit trees. And the local police chief credits the program, Woodlake Pride, with helping fight local gang crime.
"We want to grow kids in our gardens, because we've seen what violence, drugs and alcohol can do," said Jimenez, a lifetime resident who works as a small farm adviser with UC Cooperative Extension.
For years, Jimenez had gathered children and planted flowers and vegetables in vacant lots. When the city purchased a railroad right-of-way on the northern flank of Bravo Lake, he offered to convert it into permanent gardens. The city provided land, water and insurance.
A local farmer donated money for irrigation and snacks. Area companies donated tubing, fertilizer and plants. And Jimenez took a sabbatical while his wife Olga, a retired packing house worker, organized the children.
The youngsters and Jimenez laid irrigation pipes in a mile-long trench. They designed a walking path and spread mounds of mulch with wheelbarrows. Then they planted banana trees and 1,600 roses.
Many stayed day after day, year after year. Jimenez brought donuts and hot chocolate. He joked and had long conversations with the children. He took them to dinner, the zoo and hiking.
Each plant Jimenez chose told a story; it was unique in smell, flavor, appearance or history.
"Everything Manuel did was interesting to me," said Walter Martinez, who worked in the gardens during middle and high school and is now a field assistant with UC Cooperative Extension.
One year, the kids planted 20,000 zinnias to spell 'Woodlake' on the levee. Another year, they designed gardens encircled with sunflowers containing such dazzling plants that some visitors cried on seeing them.
The gardens became a community gathering space. The fruit is not picked and visitors can sample ripe produce right off the branch.
On a recent November morning, the gardens burst with 130 varieties of roses, 60 types of grapes, 200 varieties of stone fruit, a cactus collection, rows of guava, mango and papaya trees and rare purple walnuts.
Jimenez and 10-year-old Roman Ramirez huddled next to tomato plants.
"Mijo, you need to cut here," Jimenez said, demonstrating the use of pruning shears and referring to the boy as his son. Then he let Roman clip the plants.
The children -- some as young as 8, though most are high school age -- find the gardens through word of mouth. Even on gray winter weekends, they call Jimenez, asking: "Manuel, are we working today?" Jimenez and his wife, who have four grown children, spend every free hour in the gardens.
"This is a great project, because it engages kids so they don't have time to walk on the streets," said Carmen Perez, whose 15-year-old son Gerardo spends nearly every day with the program.
Gerardo's parents already work in agriculture, his mother in a packing plant, his father in the fields. Gerardo says he plans to go to college to become an agricultural engineer, like Jimenez.
Though there are only 12 documented gang members in Woodlake, Police Chief John Zapalac said loosely affiliated groups of Surenos and Nortenos clash here. Many kids lack stability in their home life, he said, so they become "wannabe members," sucked into the violence.
Although a few of the youth previously involved in the gardens are in jail and one was killed last October, the chief credits the gardens in part with the town's decline in youth violence in recent years.
The program has helped steer many youngsters away from that path, the chief said. Children wearing gang colors are sent home to change. The Jimenezes counsel them against the gang lifestyle and encourage them to pursue higher education. "They're surrogate parents, they really are," said Zapalac.
The children gain skills and confidence by giving presentations and serving as garden tour guides. This year, 800 visitors attended the berry tasting.
The majority of the teens make it to college, Jimenez said. Garden kids have become car salesmen, farm managers, teachers and engineers.
Jimenez continues to dream big. He's already applying for grants to plant larger gardens and open a U-pick and interpretive center, so that he can involve even more kids.
"You can't wait for somebody else, like the government, to do things for you," Jimenez said. "You need to get up and fix the community yourself."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.