Nurturing Community

By Eve Pranis

"Young people who have been labeled 'bad' or 'at-risk' are often referred to us," says Shannon Thompson, Director of Youthlinks, a nonprofit in Rockland, ME, that matches adolescents with community service opportunities. "But as they work in the garden, then share their harvest, we get to see a side of them that few adults have a chance to see: a thoughtful, compassionate, generous spirit."

In the spring of 1997, Thompson's desire to engage young people in doing meaningful service activities and tackling local hunger inspired her to think gardening. Although she had virtually no growing experience, she was propelled by her vision to start a garden project for adolescents. The goal? To deliver the harvest to local food distribution agencies and individuals in need. As Thompson and her first crop of young growers developed a passion for raising and sharing food, they joined the national Plant a Row for the Hungry project (see below). Their first harvest yielded a whopping 650 pounds of produce. Little did anyone realize what other rewards were yet to be reaped.

What began as a 500-square-foot plot behind the Youthlinks offices has since expanded to 4,000 square feet. Although the adolescent participants hardly regarded gardening as cool at the outset, the project began to grow on the 11- to 17-year-olds who were referred to Youthlinks by the courts, police, guidance counselors, and parents. Now, more than one hundred kids each year design, plant, and nurture their green oasis.

"Our initial garden goal was to provide food to those in need, but it has become a much richer and multilayered project," says Thompson. "It is therapeutic and educational, and it supports our organization's goals: to offer supervised enrichment, mentoring, and a meaningful way to give back to the community." Each young person finds different relevance and rewards in the garden, she explains. Some discover a peaceful sanctuary, a respite from life's challenges. Others develop pre-vocational or practical skills, such as maintaining a greenhouse or prioritizing tasks. "The opportunity to work with others in an emotionally safe environment, which we try to ensure, is something that many kids don't find in other arenas," Thompson explains. Pride also flourishes among the stalks, tubers, and vines. After all, the Youthlinks garden has the distinction of being the only project to win the National Gardening Association's Youth Garden Grant two years running.

Feeding the Community

The young people launch each growing season by brainstorming what they might grow: potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, melons, and other crowd pleasers. Next, they trek to homeless shelters, food pantries, and soup kitchens to interview managers and guests to learn what they would find most useful and appealing.

Most of the garden space is devoted to crops designated for those in need, but the kids also plan and maintain theme gardens, a "red" garden and a sunflower maze, for instance, that capture their own imaginations. As youngsters work hands-on to plan, plant, tend, and share the organic garden's harvest, Thompson's staff weaves in relevant teaching opportunities: testing soils, practicing integrated pest management, or tracking food for the Plant a Row for the Hungry Project, for instance.

Plant-a-Row for the Hungry asks participating gardeners to weigh their harvests, then regularly report results to the national office. The Youthlinks teens take these charges very seriously. "The fact that we're hooked into a larger national effort to battle hunger carries weight and credibility with the kids," says Thompson. A day or two each week, the young growers weigh the harvest on an old balance scale, then meticulously chart the date, weight, and the food's destination before making deliveries. (A couple of times each season, the group also sends a report to the national Plant a Row office.) Questions such as why tomatoes are heavier or how many ounces constitute a pound spark impromptu math and science lessons and an opportunity to hone problem-solving skills.

An impressive harvest of 2,300 pounds last year surpassed Youthlink's goal of giving away 2,000 by the year 2,000! But they didn't stop there. This ambitious bunch already has a head start on this growing season, thanks to their passive solar greenhouse. The first 50 pounds of greens--spinach, mache, and claytonia--were picked and packed off in March.

The teen's produce-laden forays into the community have also brought other fruitful connections. Youthlinks participants routinely prepare and serve a meal at a soup kitchen. Some helped residents of a nearby homeless shelter put in a low-maintenance vegetable garden. With support from a local farmer, another group incubated eggs of a rare chicken breed, then donated the grown layers to the shelter.

Although the rewards of giving freely to others can be great, adolescents' yen for raising money has also inspired ideas for entrepreneurial ventures. Together with staff, they've brainstormed potential schemes, such as a seedling sale, then planned and executed them. A market garden business is next on the list, reports Thompson.

"For a lot of these kids, their potential is unknown and undervalued," says Thompson. "In the right environment, they can shine and feel good about themselves, and contribute in a tangible, positive way. At the risk of sounding cliche, Thompson marvels at the changes that can result when a kid plants a seed, cares for something living, and has food or vibrant flowers to use or share. Her evidence on the program's impact? "There are so many indicators that this program is making a difference," says Thompson. "For instance, I know we've had an influence when young people who have moved on from the program routinely visit and share how much their experience meant to them. It's also telling when youngsters who come through the Department of Corrections to work off 20 hours of community service stay involved and engaged long after they've done their time," she adds.

Plant a Row (or more!)

The national Plant a Row for the Hungry project (PAR) enlists gardeners to help feed the hungry--more than 35 million Americans--by donating fresh produce to food banks and soup kitchens. The concept is simple. Plant an additional row (or more) in your garden and deliver the harvest to a food collection agency in your area. You can participate as an individual, team up with friends or social groups, or start a campaign in your community. (Your donations are even tax deductible.)

For supplies and information on sharing your harvest and starting a campaign, visit the PAR Web site or call Program Administrator Carol Ledbetter, toll-free, at 877-492-2727. She can also help you locate people involved in PAR in your community or a site to donate your food.

Photography by National Gardening Association

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