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Youth Grown: Young adults gain experience through non-profit garden program

May 2nd, 2012 | Category: Community

by Brent Cole

In its second year, Youth Grown – a program that helps at risk youths gain experience and skills towards finding employment – has become a model of what can happen when non-profits work together to address a need. Local organizations Northwest Youth Services, The Whatcom Volunteer Center and Common Threads Farm & School Collective have pooled their resources to create Youth Grown, a garden that brings together NWYS youth and volunteers. The produce is then sold to restaurants and at Common Threads’ farmers market booth.

Youth Grown participants and volunteers take care of the garden last summer. COURTESY PHOTO

The idea for Youth Grown came to Jason Dallman after he, recently hired as the Vocational Readiness Coordinator at NWYS, began looking for a way to help some of the members (ages 18-24) in the Adult Housing program gain experience while utilizing the plot of land next to the NWYS office. While researching for the project, he learned about Common Threads, a local non-profit that implements and provides resources for gardens at participating schools in Whatcom County.

As the idea progressed, Dallman met with Dan Hammill, the Volunteer Center’s Program Director. One afternoon, as the two met for coffee and tried to form a project plan, Laura Plaut, the founder and director at Common Threads happened to ride by on her bike. The two chased her down and brought Laura into the meeting. Just 26 days later, Youth Grown launched.

“By the seat of our pants we did that and it worked out pretty well,” Dallman said.

Hammill added, “The program demonstrates local non-profits can work quickly to identify problems.”

The program gives participants the chance to gain skills and confidence to enter the work force, and, for some, a stepping stone to enter society. “I would meet with kids individually and they would be in no way ready to start applying for jobs. There was a real big need for a venue that they could do that,” stated Dallman. “It’s kind of a vocational readiness progress – to be involved in something to get self-confidence and get some self-esteem. It’s a place to get some experience and build your resume.”

Program participants must first apply and go through an interview process, though no one has been turned away. They are asked to commit to working three hours a week on Tuesday afternoons for one month. “We try to establish that sort of responsibility and accountability,” Dallman said.

Last year, eight individuals (ranging in age from 18-24 and in the adult housing program at NWYC), worked a total of 162 hours in the garden. Several went on to find jobs, though Dallman doesn’t see this as the only measure of success.
“Some of the coolest things to see – we work with a variety of people with a variety of backgrounds – are giving them an opportunity to be engaged with someone,” Dallman said. For some, just getting them out of their apartment was a success. The program is meant to help young people become engaged in other things in the community.

There is a one-to-one ratio between volunteers and participants, a key ingredient according to Dallman, with 16 volunteers participating last year. “Everyone is out there working together. Modeling of healthy behaviors and how everyone works with each other. It’s a non-threatening environment where they talk to people they wouldn’t normally talk to. It goes both ways. It’s a good community building activity.”

This year’s program began in mid-April and Dallman hopes to expand to 20 participants over the course of the summer. “I’m anticipating that we’ll work with a few of the younger folks. We have some returning folks,” he said proudly. “Last year was a pretty moving experience.”

Not only are the participants benefiting, according to Hamill, but also the volunteers, who include Western students and local residents. “Any time you offer a volunteer the opportunity to work outside, dig in the dirt and work with cool people, it’s a pretty easy sell.” He added, “Volunteers reported that this was one of their favorite programs to be a part of.”

Others in the community have also chipped in to help. Whatcom Community Foundation provided grant funding to buy tools and a shed, and Hardware Sales lent them a tractor at no cost. Part of the Community Foundation grant will also go towards on-the-job training programs in which young adults will have an internship with a local company for six weeks.
According to Tessa Bundy, a garden educator with Common Threads, a variety of vegetables were grown last year. Because the season started late, they were only able to sell their vegetables at the end of September, with produce going to local restaurants Boundary Bay and The Table, as well as the Common Threads booth at the market. Tessa hopes more restaurants will participate this year, including special days with the produce source highlighted on the menu. This year, the vegetables will be available in June at the market stand.

So far, those involved have been thrilled with the response and success of the program, believing it is a model for not only how to help local youth, but how non-profits can work together to tackle local needs. “This is a model that we’re really interested in replicating and expanding because it works so well,” Plaut said.

For more information, call (360) 734-9862 ext.131 or contact jasond@nwys.org. A “Summer Rides: School Garden Tour” will take place Sunday, June 3 at 1 p.m. at the Youth Grown Garden, starting at 1020 N. State St., Bellingham. This bike tour, sponsored by everybodyBIKE and Common Threads, will explore vegetable patches grown by young people at local schools.

Published in the May 2012 issue of Grow Northwest magazine.

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