Wilmington, Del. (AP) – When Michael Moore was released from prison after serving time for selling drugs, he realized that it was time to make a change in his life.

With the help and guidance of the Delaware Center for Horticulture, Moore enrolled in a post-release program in public landscaping, which included job training for gardening, park maintenance and basic knowledge of planting. He completed the program in 2014.

“I was encouraged to apply and I gave it a shot,” said Moore, who was approached about the program following his four-year prison term. “I ended up getting hired on their staff after the program because I was willing to learn.”

The program helped him stay grounded, said Moore, who recently got pardoned for all of his charges with the help of the organization. The Branches to Chances Program provides classroom and hands-on training through professional development in the horticulture and landscape industry.

The center hired Moore in February 2014, and he spent seven years working as a landscape foreman and supervisor. Through that experience, he saw how caring for plants brought him joy.

“I love the plants and learning their differences, tending to them, putting them in the right place and finding out the reason why they wouldn’t grow – it’s like a religion … there is just so much to learn,” Moore said.

Getting on the right path through horticulture center Today, Moore, 42, is still in the horticulture industry but now runs his own business, Moore Green. He credits the horticulture center for restarting his life on the right path.

“I would have probably still been selling drugs if not for the program,” Moore said. “I like everything about what I do now … I come home dirty every day, take a shower and when I see the dirt roll down the drain – that lets me know I did some good work.” The Branches to Chances Program provides classroom and hands-on training through professional development in the horticulture and landscape industry.

Moore is one of several formally incarcerated people that benefited from the center. The program touted, Branches to Chances, includes everything from horticulture training to career-building skills for job readiness and placement.

The name of the program, Branches to Chances, was coined by Moore, himself.

”`Branches’ like tree branches and `Chances’ because this program is our second chance,” said Moore, adding that he came up with the phrase while rapping one day.

Branches to Chances continues to grow Each spring, Branches to Chances admits eight trainees who are hired as temporary staff and receive between $8.75 to $10 per hour over the course of the season. The 12-week program begins in March and concludes in May, said Vikram Krishnamurthy, the organization’s executive director.

During the last two weeks of the program, Krishnamurthy said, each of the participants has to complete an “externship” for potential employers in the Wilmington area.

“They are placed in these jobs and start right away upon completion of the program,” Krishnamurthy said. “We also retain at least one and sometimes two participants in the program each year as part of our own of our public landscapes team.” Moore’s story of redemption is similar to former Branches to Chances participant, 52-year-old Floyd Backus.

Between 2002 and 2009, he also served time in prison for selling drugs.

After enrolling in the program, Backus was able to start his own landscaping company, Flods Garden and Lawn Service. The service operates out of Newark with about 90 clients, he said.

Backus called the horticulture program “awesome,” adding that working outdoors creates peace for him.

“It’s a really good program to learn the trade and to help people coming out of prison if they want to get into that kind of work,” Backus said. “They really encouraged us to be successful and set us up to move forward in our life.”

The problems that Moore and Backus had finding work after release from prison are experienced at a higher rate by Black Delawareans who face a disproportionate rate of incarceration.

The Branches to Chances Program provides classroom and hands-on training through professional development in the horticulture and landscape industry.

Black people, who make up 22.1% of Delaware’s population, comprised roughly 60% of the state prison population according to the 2020 census. At

the end of 2021, the state’s population of Black prisoners made up 65% of individuals serving life sentences and 63% of people detained in prison awaiting charges.

The horticulture center recently received a $45,000 grant from the Bank of America to support Branches to Chances horticulture job skills training and placement program. The program is approaching 100 graduates ranging from 18 to 60, according to Krishnamurthy.

“These individuals are working hard to make a new start in their lives in a variety of ways and our piece of it is through the employment part,” Krishnamurthy said. “We know that our field of horticulture and landscape services can not only provide entry-level opportunities but also opportunities for advancement.”