Courtesy Vel Scott
Across the country, older Americans are reaching out to children and teens who need extra attention — and they are doing it through gardening. From the combination of willing and able adults, kids in need, and tough times grew intergenerational programs in Cleveland and Olympia, Wash., efforts that have yielded not only good produce but remarkable results in those who are willing to get their hands dirty.
See also: Gardening tips that save you money.
Gardeners, it turns out, are a group that has the time, and will, to help. According to a National Gardening Association (NGA) survey, two-thirds of all gardeners are 45 or older, but only one-third of them have children living at home.
At the same time, a lousy economy has only highlighted the need to learn how to grow food. The number of households raising their own food increased from 36 million in 2008 to 41 million in 2009, according to the NGA. About 1 million households raised their food in some kind of neighborhood plot in 2009, and 5 million non-gardening households said they would probably participate in a community garden if one started up nearby.
Vel's Purple Oasis
One day last summer, Vel Scott, 70, set up a table in her garden and chopped tomatoes, peppers, cilantro and green onions that had just been picked by members of the environmental club of John Hay High School. She added garlic and oil and set the bowl of salsa next to some corn chips. The chips were the bait; the vegetables were the message. "Sometimes I will buy a tomato at the store and put it next to one they have just picked," she says. "I want them to see and taste the difference."
Here in this East Cleveland neighborhood, Vel's Purple Oasis spreads across 1.5 acres that Vel and her husband, Don, bought when they owned a nightclub across the street. Though the well-loved club closed in 1998, Vel still knows nearly everyone in the neighborhood. After she lost her husband to heart disease last year, she began to focus her energies on the Oasis.
Vel grew up near the Oasis in the 1950s, back when people shopped at small businesses owned by locals. When she started the garden in 2008, Vel knew only a little about growing food. But the nightclub had taught her how to grow a business, and years of cooking for Don had taught her a lot about how to make soul food tasty without loading it up with salt and fat. She was driven to share what she knew. The need was clearly there. Nearby residents are mostly poor and African American. It's more than a mile from the Oasis to the nearest grocery store that has a good produce section, and a lot of Vel's neighbors don't have cars.
"Whole Foods isn't part of the culture of my neighborhood," she says. "The reason people here don't eat healthy is because they don't know any better. If you don't know about healthy food, you're not going to be comfortable eating it."
Volunteers renovated a small house Vel bought next to the garden last fall. The Don Scott House will open June 30, and Vel plans to hold community events and cooking classes there. Children and teenagers come from nearby churches, community centers and after-school programs to work outdoors in the garden, hang out together and eat Vel's cooking. "I will make a fennel salad with things we've grown here and serve it to my friends in my home," she says. "The way to change people's habits is, first make them feel comfortable."
Vel planted the garden not only to show kids what fresh food tastes like, but also to show them how to become entrepreneurs. "Most teenagers go out and get jobs that pay them by the hour," she says. "But I tell them, you can own a piece of this lot. How much you earn from it will depend on how good you are at working it. That's a more powerful lesson."
"I believe strongly in the power of prayer," Vel says. And what she's doing seems to be working. Monique Russell, 19, worked at the garden two years ago and says it opened her eyes. She is now a second-year college student majoring in environmental science.
Olympia-based Garden-Raised Bounty calls itself GRuB because its staff and volunteers spend a lot of time using grub hoes. The group installs raised bed gardens for low-income households and runs a two-acre organic farm that is a popular destination for school groups. But it also has acquired a reputation for turning young lives around.
About 200 students at Olympia High School are considered at risk of dropping out in an average year, according to Principal Matt Grant, and about 40 of these will ultimately quit. About one in eight children in the surrounding counties lives below the poverty line.
Every summer, GRuB volunteers meet 20 at-risk teenagers. More than 90 percent of those who stick with the program either graduate or get a GED. Even more impressive is that two-thirds of alumni go on to college, many becoming the first in their families to do so.
"We teach leadership skills a little bit at a time," says Loretta Seppanen, 64, who volunteered for GRuB as soon as she retired last year. "The students learn how to do little things at first, and then they learn to do more. By the time they are through here, they have gained self-confidence. What makes it work is that everyone assumes the student can do the job. A lot of them have never experienced that positive assumption before, and it is powerful."
GRuB is the brainchild of Blue Peetz, 37, who majored in community studies and ecology at Olympia's Evergreen State College. When he was still a student, Peetz started a community garden where students and older people worked together in an unused backyard and gave the food away. "Then I got a job at a day care center, and one day we took a field trip to that garden," says Peetz. "I had my revelation the first time I saw 60 fifth-graders pulling weeds. A lot of them had no idea where their food came from."
Peetz helped launch GRuB and began looking for support. The mentoring and leadership training programs began when a federal grant allowed them to offer summer jobs to low-income high school students in 1999. "A lot of the kids we hired knew what it was like to be hungry," he says. "So we put them in a position where they could do something about that for someone else, and they got inspired for the first time in their lives. You could see them change."
Olympia High School and GRuB will launch a collaborative project this summer allowing students to earn school credit while spending half of each day at the farm in their first year, then maintaining a job at the farm in their second year. Several other schools are watching and may sign on.
"The kids who go through the program are impressive," says Seppanen. "I was on a raised-bed crew last year that was led by a young man who had started in the program in 2008. His grades had improved to the point where he is in college now."
Brad Edmondson is the former editor of American Demographics magazine. He lives in Ithaca, N.Y.
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