Noran Sanford turns youthful lives around on old prison grounds

Noran Sanford works with at-risk youth in Laurinburg to convert an old prison into a farm and recreational area.
Noran Sanford works with at-risk youth in Laurinburg to convert an old prison into a farm and recreational area. Courtesy of Noran Sanford

Working with troubled Scotland County youth, Noran Sanford saw a grim reminder in the abandoned Wagram prison camp – a sense that like the buildings languishing behind weed-covered barbed wire, many of the children he worked with would end up wasting their time and talents in prison.

So Sanford came up with idea to recruit those young people to “flip” the prison into a community resource, in the process helping boys who had already been in trouble to become community leaders.

He founded Growing Change in 2011, when a group of 12 boys who had been through the juvenile justice system started developing ideas for using the abandoned prison, from using a cell block for aquaculture to building a recreation area.

The group then presented its plan to dozens of state and local officials, university groups and others – forging a wide network of partners to help see it through. The group also learned about sustainable farming, built a community garden and started distributing produce to needy families.

“These formerly incarcerated young people were put in the position of leadership, to help us figure out the new question of what to do with old prisons,” Sanford says. “That puts them in a radically different position within the community.”

Support has grown for the initiative in recent years. Growing Change has been awarded several grants from national organizations such as the Open Society Foundation. And last week, officials at the state Department of Public Safety tentatively agreed to deed the prison land to Growing Change.

Sanford has traveled to other states, and even to the Netherlands, to share his model. A group of students at N.C. Agricultural and Technical State University are creating a guide that will allow others replicate it.

Scotland County Commissioner Betty Blue Gholston was born on the grounds of the Wagram prison, where both her parents worked. She has worked closely with Sanford and told her story of growing up at the site for an exhibit on the history of work farms by a UNC-Greensboro student.

“Even just exposing people to these ideas has been wonderful for the community,” Gholston says. “That prison would eventually have been torn down, and now he’s making it into a place that will help the people of the community in so many ways.”

Into the fields

Sanford is from Laurinburg, born not far from his mother’s house, where he now lives. He studied biology and chemistry at UNC-Chapel Hill but disliked the isolation of the lab.

He was working with youth in the summers and decided to combine his love for science with his desire to work with people.

He earned his master’s degree in social work, and then returned home to care for his mother, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and has since died. He found his home town, which always struggled, worse off than when he had left.

Scotland and nearby counties are among the state’s highest in unemployment, poverty and violent crime, with some of its worst health outcomes. Scotland also has some of the state’s highest rates of food insecurity – despite being a top producer of agricultural products.

“When I moved back to Laurinburg, I saw a challenged area that had become even more difficult,” Sanford says.

He was working as a social worker when he came up with the idea for Growing Change. Part of the idea, he says, was to empower these youths to be leaders from the beginning, an experience that had the power to significantly change their perspective.

The initial 12 boys all had a combination of risk factors that made them likely to end up in jail. They also represented the diversity of the county, with nearly equal proportions of black, Native American and white residents, plus a growing Hispanic population.

They were not paid at first, and later earned a small stipend each fall to buy school supplies and again at Christmastime. From that original group, about half are still working with the project, while others have found jobs, are in school or joined the military.

The blueprint that the group created for the Wagram site is wide-ranging, including a counseling center, market and demonstration farm. The group also envisions creating biofuel production in abandoned tanks and other creative reuses for the property.

The community garden, which is now open for the season, allows the group to rent beds and distribute free produce to needy families.

“When they were able to deliver a homegrown tomato straight off the vine to their grandmother, who perhaps took care of them, that’s a connection that changes how they see themselves,” Sanford says.

The group’s beehives should soon allow them to produce honey. The goal is to launch a line of sustainable agricultural products, including bee products, canned food, meat and fish.

Another initiative will supply housing for returning veterans, as well as full-time jobs running the farm, allowing youth to work there part time or as volunteers.

Student partnerships

When or if all these plans will come to fruition remains in flux. But the group continues to pursue its vision through partnerships with a number of government agencies, including cooperative extension, corrections and juvenile justice, as well as several universities.

Students at the N.C. School of the Arts started working to create virtual reality tours of the prison in its past, present and future forms. Students at N.C. State University won an award for the site plans for the area, and others from UNC-Pembroke studied the site’s water resources and created a promotional video.

Sanford says he and his group started working on the site as “polite squatters” with limited permission from the state authorities who control the site. The group now has a three-year agreement so it can develop programs on the site before transferring the deed.

Owning the property will make it easier to raise money from corporate sponsors. Until now, the project has gotten by with limited funds, but benefited from the creativity and community spirit that often flourishes in areas with fewer people and resources.

“Rural areas have had to do a whole lot with very little for a very long time,” he says. “We come from that tradition.”

Noran Sanford

Born: June 1967, Laurinburg

Residence: Laurinburg

Career: Board Chair, Growing Change

Education: B.S. biology, UNC-Chapel Hill; M.S.W. Virginia Commonwealth University

Family: Wife Jennifer, daughters Mackenzie and Jesse