Tomatoes and strawberries aren’t the only thing growing at Riverfront Farm. On a recent Thursday morning, the urban garden teemed with kids sporting Green Collar Job Corps T-shirts.
Green Collar Job Corps is the youth entrepreneurship and employment initiative of Project HOPE (Helping Our Young People Excel). “We’ve got 28 kids from ages 11 to 19 involved,” said board president Andrew Larson. “We’ve grown every year.”
Launched in 2007, Project HOPE is the brainchild of West Central Neighborhood activists Patrick and Connie Copeland Malone. The goal of the program 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.
Each summer, Green Collar Job Corps provides area young people steady employment and on-the-job training. Kids rotate through lawn care, gardening and market teams. Last year they added a spring program and this year they hope to add a fall program, as well. “Things don’t stop growing just because kids go back to school,” Larson said.
The crops raised on the lots are sold each Tuesday at the West Central Marketplace on the corner of Broadway Avenue and Walnut Street. And the Marketplace has grown. Larson said five vendors are participating, and live music serenades shoppers while they browse among the organic produce.
The heart of the enterprise, Riverfront Farm, is a scattered-site urban farming initiative currently consisting of five separate lots. “We’re reclaiming all the lots we can,” Larson said. “We’re adding two more this season.”
Instead of weeds or garbage, these neighborhood sites now overflow with an abundance of rhubarb, herbs and other plants, and each lot features a henhouse and a few chickens.
“The chickens provide the fertilizer,” Larson said with a grin.
They also provide an educational experience for city kids. “I learned how to feed chickens,” said Caleb Stamper, 13. This is Stamper’s third year with Green Collar Jobs Corps. “My favorite thing is running the cash register,” he said, referring to his duties at the Marketplace.
Thirteen-year-old Mica Jones took a swig of water and wiped his brow. It’s his first summer with the program. “I’ve never really done any of this before,” he said, waving his arm toward the farm lot. “I wanted to try something new.”
For him that something new included gardening basics. “I’ve done a lot of weeding today, and I learned how to water.”
Across the yard, Gloria Rios, 17, and Lindsay Golden, 16, worked on posters for the Marketplace.
The girls said they’ve learned a lot in the past three weeks. Golden pointed to the raised bed plots. “I can recognize most of the plants, now. I couldn’t before I started here.”
Rios relished one new experience in particular. “I had my first piece of rhubarb pie,” she said, smiling. “I loved it!”
The two girls expressed appreciation for the life skills they’re learning. “It’s good to keep kids out of trouble and it prepares us for a job,” said Rios.
Indeed, Green Collar Job Corps members are required to wear their uniform shirts, bring a water bottle and show up on time each day. Their pay is docked for each infraction, so the kids quickly learn to meet the program’s expectation.
Larson said each year they hold a tryout day for young people. “Typically 50 to 60 show up. We look for kids who can take direction and can work as a team.” They would like to accept more young people, but Larson shrugged and said, “We only have so much money.”
Project HOPE and its subsidiary programs are funded solely through donations. Those donations come in a variety of ways, and range from monetary gifts from local foundations to offerings of plants or tools from folks in the West Central Neighborhood.
As the morning sun grew brighter, a group of kids wielded shovels preparing an area for a new brick patio. “If you don’t provide something for kids to do, they will find stuff to do,” Larson said. “And it’s usually not good stuff.”
The kids and the adult supervisors are the only paid staff. Each team is also supervised by youth leaders. “Eventually, we’d love to turn it over to the youth leaders,” said Larson.
Daequana Bates, 19, joined Green Collar Job Corps last year. “Now, I’m a supervisor,” she said. Then she grinned. “I think we’re really in charge and the adults just supervise.” With that she led her group out into the neighborhood to pass out fliers for the Marketplace.
Mary Naber is the adult in charge of the gardening team. The former instructor’s aide for Spokane Public Schools has worked with teens for many years and she loves gardening. “This just fit me,” she said. “I love watching things grow.”
As she teaches young people how to weed, water, and fertilize the garden plots, she hopes she’s instilling an even more universal lesson. Naber said, “How do you get to be a caring individual, if you don’t learn to care for growing things?”