Zoe O’keefe sits in the dirt on a hot April afternoon, weeding and watering plants in raised garden beds.
“I’ve had a pretty messed-up background,” O’keefe said. “Since being here I’ve learned how to take care of myself in ways. I know I can be an independent person.”
O’keefe, 16, is a member of Project Hope, a nonprofit working out of the West Central neighborhood. Project Hope takes abandoned or run-down plots of land and converts them into urban farms. Youth between the ages of 11 and 18 grow food and sell the produce at local farmers markets.
“I was super-interested in gardening,” O’keefe said. “The biggest thing, I think, is just getting kids involved with things other than drugs and stuff like that.”
O’keefe, 16, has worked for Project Hope since last summer and wants to be a botanist after she graduates from the Community School next year.
The program started 10 years ago after gang violence in West Central pushed community members to do something, said Executive Director James Kashork. While the project is focused on farming, Kashork said it’s really about youth development.
“We want to provide opportunity for the kids who for whatever reason might have less opportunity,” Kashork said. “We have to catch kids earlier.”
Kashork became the executive director in 2014. He’s focused on studying the benefit the program has for participants. Over the next few years, Kashork said, the organization will work with Spokane Public Schools to track the effect of the program. Despite the lack of data, Kashork points to individual success stories as proof of the program’s success. There are Project Hope participants going to college on full-ride scholarships, and some now help lead the group as members on the nonprofit’s board.
The program has grown rapidly in its 10 years. In 2006, there were six kids working one lot. Now, roughly 70 kids are working on eight lots. In addition to growing food, the kids sell the produce at local farmers markets and travel throughout Spokane doing yard maintenance. They split the program into spring, summer and fall crews. The spring and fall crews work nine hours a week and help prepare the garden beds, while the summer crews work around 15 hours a week. Participants work either on growing food, selling food or lawn care.
Cleaning up the abandoned properties doesn’t just benefit Project Hope, Kashork said. Owners get their property cleaned up for no charge, and the improvements have a positive effect on the neighborhood.
“We have no problem with vandalism because the people who live next to the lots that we farm keep an eye on them,” Kashork said.
Older kids receive an hourly wage, Kashork said, while younger ones get a summer stipend. Mickey Troya, 14, said she started working for Project Hope this year simply to make money and is starting to reconsider her decision.
“They make you bust your butt,” she said. “I’m tired.”
Monicea Brown, 15, has worked at Project Hope for four years. She uses the money she’s earned over the summer to buy school clothes and supplies, things her mother can’t afford, she said.
But, in addition to the money, Brown said she’s enjoyed learning about food. When she started, Brown didn’t know what a beet or a turnip was.
“It’s nice to have this kind of food,” she said.
That’s a big part of the group’s mission – providing fresh produce to an area that often doesn’t have access to healthy food. Kashork points to the neighborhood’s life expectancy, nearly 10 years lower than the richest Spokane neighborhoods, and high poverty rate as issues Project Hope tries to address.
Austin Powers is an admittedly shy 17-year-old. (His mother didn’t know his name was a pop culture reference, he said.) He speaks quietly and concisely. However, when the conversation turns to food, his voice brightens and he speaks up.
“A freshly picked carrot is probably the best thing I’ve ever tasted,” the North Central High School senior said.
Patrick Mannhard oversees the farming efforts and the lawn care business. In the spring, summer and fall, he helps plant, water, weed, mow and sell produce.
“The cool thing is we’re in the city,” but, he said, “we have a bunch of issues because we’re in the city.”
Those issues range from people stealing vegetables at night to kids who aren’t really engaged with the work.
“It’s tough to do. Basically, I just become a taskmaster,” he said.
Mannhard believes providing that structure is an important part of the work.
“We provide positive activities for them to be doing, which is so insanely important,” he said.
Last year the program totaled $8,000 in sales and produced about 8,000 pounds of produce, Mannhard said. Project Hope’s annual budget is approximately $280,000, and the organization has two full-time staffers and one part-timer. During the summer they hire additional staff to oversee the projects.
“It helps a lot of kids,” Powers said. “It tries to set them up for a better path.”