Arrow-right Camera

Washington Voices

Choosing green path to jobs

Thu., Oct. 1, 2009

Allyson Asher, 15, harvests lemon basil in a Riverfront Farm garden recently as part of a youth job program. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Allyson Asher, 15, harvests lemon basil in a Riverfront Farm garden recently as part of a youth job program. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Program provides income, skills for youths

Summer jobs are hard to come by for young teens. Paper routes are scarce and often taken by adults with cars. Fast-food restaurants don’t hire anyone under 16, and day care centers have reduced the amount of baby-sitting jobs available. Yet 14-year-old Dave Howell not only earned income this summer, he also gained job skills that will serve him well throughout his life.

Howell joined Green Collar Jobs Service Corps, the youth employment and work force development component of Jobs Not Jails.

“I did three kinds of jobs,” he said. “I learned farming, lawn care and marketing.”

Jobs Not Jails is the youth entrepreneurship and employment initiative of Project HOPE (Helping Our young People Excel). According to its Web site, the goal of the organization is to inspire and organize a variety of worker-led and worker-owned/managed enterprises that will create a “green pathway out of poverty” for youth in the West Central neighborhood.

For Howell, it was an eye-opening opportunity. “I enjoyed lawn care,” he said. “I worked the weed whacker. I was the only one who’d wear long pants in 100-degree weather.”

Project HOPE and its components are the brainchild of West Central neighborhood activists Patrick and Connie Copeland Malone.

They created the organization in 2007 after being approached by Spokane Public Schools.

“The school district was looking for community partners,” Malone recalled. “One of the first things I recognized was the need to create an alternative to street life.” West Central had long been plagued by gang activity.

Simply put, if the community didn’t want youth prowling the neighborhoods, looking for trouble, then healthier, more beneficial pursuits must be found. Initially, Project HOPE partnered with Salem Lutheran Church and offered God’s Gym – weekly basketball nights for neighborhood youth. But Patrick Copeland Malone quickly realized a few hours of gym time a week wasn’t enough to keep kids out of trouble.

“There was a fundamental economic issue that all our good works and prayers weren’t impacting,” he said.

He believed young people needed to actively invest in their West Central community and become a source of solutions instead of the cause of problems.

When the Copeland Malones and a team of volunteers created Riverfront Farm two years ago, they found a way to get neighborhood youth involved from the ground up – literally. The farm is actually several urban gardens clustered around a renovated farm house on West Boone Avenue.

Last summer Project HOPE launched Green Collar Jobs and trained and employed five area teens. This year, volunteers raised enough funds to train 17 youths ages 11 to 15. And thanks to federal stimulus money, six young people ages 16 to 24 were added to the program. They rotated among lawn care, gardening and marketing teams.

They learned more than just job skills. Board member and volunteer Andrew Larson said every Friday was class day. Subjects ranged from basic first aid to food preparation. Larson, a chef by trade, taught a cooking class at the farm house.

Larson laughed as he recalled the reaction of the young people when they first ventured out into the gardens. He said, “One girl said, ‘Wow! That’s lettuce?’ ” Many of them had never seen food growing.

“They learned the connection,” Larson said. “Yes, your food comes from the ground – yes you can grow it.” Thanks to Larson, they also learned how to prepare it and then got to sample the delicious flavors of freshly roasted herbs and vegetables. “They just got so fired up and excited,” Larson said.

The youths also learned basic retail and marketing skills when they worked at the West Central Farmers Market. That’s what 15-year-old Allyson Asher enjoyed the most. “I liked using the cash register and talking to people,” she said. “I got a better understanding of the neighborhood. The people here are really nice – it’s not such a bad neighborhood.”

During their lawn care rotation, the youths mowed and weeded for low-income, elderly or disabled residents. “We got up to doing 12 lawns a week by the end of summer,” said Patrick Copeland Malone. “The kids did a great job – people were pleased.”

Watching the teens work hard to beautify the area had a positive effect on neighbors who’d grown leery of teenagers. “There can be a reluctance – a sense of fear,” Patrick Copeland Malone said, describing the attitude of some adults. “In a small way, by gardening, weeding and mowing lawns, we can bridge that gap.”

In addition to making a difference in their neighborhood, the teens came away with important employment skills. Larson said, “They’ve got a head start as far as the job market.”

Green Collar Jobs site supervisor Daniel Henry agreed. He said the youths were expected to show up on time every day, wearing their Green Collar Jobs T-shirts. Failure to meet expectations resulted in docked pay. Henry sees lasting value in teaching kids the benefits of hard work.

“This kind of thing can be duplicated in other neighborhoods throughout the city,” he said. “Our kids, our community and our society will benefit.”

Click here to comment on this story »