It’s early on a warm Friday morning in the West Central neighborhood. In a yard around a little white house, a flock of teenagers are busy digging and pulling weeds, composting, feeding chickens and sweeping garden paths. They are chatting while they work and they are getting things done.
The group is this summer’s graduates from Project HOPE’s Green Collar Jobs Youth Corps Program which is based at Riverfront Farms, a community-based at-risk youth and gang prevention program on West Boone Avenue.
Tonight they celebrate graduation after 11 weeks of job skills training.
This summer, they’ve run a lawn service, had a farmers market that was open once a week and learned how to practice organic gardening on four city lots.
“I’ve learned how to know what’s ripe and when, and then to pick veggies and sell them,” said Hiram Michel, 14. “We’ve had the market every Tuesday from 11 to 1 on Walnut and Broadway. We sell broccoli and other stuff we grow here.” He said the group has had many return costumers especially from offices in that neighborhood, and that it’s been fun to get to know some of them.
“I think I’ve learned a lot that will help me in my future, like to be on time,” said Michel.
The program, part of Project HOPE (Helping Our young People Excel), is funded by private donations and youth apply to be part of it. Aside from gardening skills, speakers talk about résumé building and job skills.
Jacob Stamper, 18, was the leader of the group that ran a lawn service business. He said mowing lawns was one of the best jobs he had this summer.
“We do lawns for people who are disabled and can’t do it themselves,” said Stamper. “Mostly, we weed-eat and clean up, it was my favorite thing to do. Over the weekend I worked for other people doing the same thing, it’s been great.”
This is Stamper’s second summer in the program and he likes it.
“Mostly I’ve learned that it doesn’t take a lot to help your community,” said Stamper. “I mean not a lot of money or time. You can just help.”
Michel said he feels like people respect him and his peers more when they wear their green Project HOPE T-shirts.
And the two joke about the time a homeowner thought they were from Geiger Prison.
“It says ‘jobs not jails’ on the back of the shirt, he must have only seen ‘jails,’ ” Michel said.
There are also chickens in the back yard – two, to be exact, named Pumpkin and Spice.
Bakari Green, 12, is the chicken manager.
“I guess I became the chicken person because I came with and picked them up,” Green said, explaining that the chickens get hen feed, ground up oyster shells and clippings from the garden. “They lay eggs. And they like corn – sometimes they’ll eat that out of your hand.”
Connie and Patrick Copeland Malone are the founders and managers of the program, which has no paid staff but pays the youth a stipend.
“The stipend is compensation for attending the training sessions,” said Patrick Copeland Malone. “The training sessions are workforce training, but everyone is a volunteer. I think at the end of the year we’ll have a balance of $250.”
Malone explains that Project HOPE doesn’t receive any state or federal funds and tries to not compete with other nonprofit organizations over grants that are available.
He said he’d like to expand the program to help participating youth understand the nature of nonprofits.
“I’d integrate these young people into the fundraising side of things, for instance,” Malone said. “Many of them will be working in nonprofits later on in life, perhaps we can do something to help them understand that field better.”