I’ve been in the privileged position to spend the last week with Chicago Botanic Garden’s Green Youth Farm Programme. There are a handful of these farms located around the city and I was based at Dyett High School in Washington Park.
I was greeted on my first day by staff member Reneldia, her warm and friendly welcome was followed by an outpouring of information about the work that the students are involved in, and how much the project helps them to develop.
Green Youth Farm is a summer training programme for teenagers, they learn to grow organic food and help to run a weekly market. The young people are paid to participate in the programme and there are many other incentives too. They can come back year after year and work towards becoming crew leaders, a position of responsibility that clearly develops skills in people and time management. Weekly workshops include a range of horticultural subjects but also address broader themes such as financial management, writing resumes and even talks about healthy relationships.
‘We grow people here too’ Reneldia stated as she volunteered passing student Dante to show me around. What really shone out from his tour was Dante’s ownership of the garden, he was clearly at home. It was also very apparent that he’d learnt a lot here too. Dante not only showed me what plants were growing but he told me why certain tasks are carried out and how the plants are looked after.
Each week a different crew runs the market. The high school is located in an area that is known as a food desert so this market plays an important role in bringing affordable, fresh and healthy food to the local population. Meanwhile the students learn to prepare the crops for sale and they gain skills in merchandising, retail and customer services. The market is clearly popular, with queues forming before it is open and many shoppers staying for a tour with one of the students.
The students told me that they take part in the programme to learn new skills, to get paid and for something to keep them busy over the long summer. They come from neighbourhoods in Chicago that are infamous for high rates of violent crime. Guns have a very real impact on the lives of the people living here and the students talk about gangs and how to stay safe on the streets. Unemployment rates are high and education levels are low. The neighbourhoods have a multitude of problems and many organisations are working hard to improve lives here. The farm offers an opportunity for training, a place to develop skills and to access good food
The Chicago Botanic Garden has been running the Green Youth Farm Programme for 10 years, I met several former students who are now involved in running the scheme. This has to be a great indication of a successful project. It’s taken me a few days to process my experience but I feel like I have witnessed a very special scheme, managed by some super staff and interns who are truly passionate about the work that they are doing. The students were a wonderful group of people to get to know; confident, enthusiastic and fun to be around. I’d like to express my thanks to them for making me so welcome.
For more information: http://www.chicagobotanic.org/greenyouthfarm/