Senior Executive Director of the Boys and Girls Club of Lawrenceville Rory Johnson recalled learning how to garden as a child while he browsed the gardens outside of the youth center.

Gardening was one of the “chores” he did growing up, but through that, he learned how to work with his hands, bonded with his parents and grandparents, and learned the importance of a healthy diet.

“My dad’s family had a farm in Tennessee,” Johnson said. “Every year we’d stay with our grandparents for about four to six weeks. We’d learned the real life. Coming from the Chicago area, everybody asked, ‘How do you learn how to do all this stuff?’ We had a real shock when all of our cousins said, ‘There’s no allowance here, you have to work for your allowance.’”

But manual labor isn’t necessarily the intent of metro-Atlanta Boys and Girls Club’s gardening club. Johnson — or “Mr. J” as the kids call him — uses gardening and cooking classes as a lesson about healthy eating habits for the youth at Boys and Girls Club in Lawrenceville.

On Friday, a group of four were preparing salsa with mentor Leslie Pavez, a Central Gwinnett High School graduate. Their salsa is based on a Chilean recipe from Pavez’s father that includes onions, cilantro, tomatoes, avocado, lemon juice and different peppers. The peppers are not part of the original recipe.

“Instead of hot sauce, we use jalapenos,” Pavez said, “since the hot sauce is not organic.”

They’ll enter their salsa in a competition between 16 to 20 other Boys and Girls Clubs on the Georgia Tech campus Wednesday at the Student Success Center.

Their expectations are high.

“To win,” 8-year-old Noor Junious said.

Preparing for the contest, though, has its other benefits. Learning how to cook provides a sense of pride for 9-year-old Alexis McFarland.

“We have the opportunity to cook, and everyone here, they don’t really like to cook,” McFarland said. “Sometimes they’re like, ‘What are you cooking? I want to cook, too.’”

Johnson said some kids that spend time at the Boys and Girls Club only eat what comes from a drive-thru or out of a microwave. That means the staff and mentors have to invent creative ways for kids to eat veggies, like roasting and peppering broccoli florets instead of steaming them. That snack was a hit with kids in the kitchen Friday.

The garden fits into the strategy of providing a healthy, organic diet. The children use the garden for some of their salsa ingredients. The gardening club has given them a chance to see the fruits of their labor over a long period of time.

Maybe the four salsa chefs at the Lawrenceville Boys and Girls Club also found a healthy, lifelong outlet.

“All of these plants start as seedlings,” Johnson said. “And (gardening) is therapeutic, too.”

Taylor Denman is a reporter born and raised in Gwinnett County. He came back home to seize the rare opportunity of telling stories in the county he grew up in.

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