Jesus Perez clearly remembers one of the last days of his fifth grade year at Lyndale Elementary School. That day, a staff member from Youth Farm came and talked to his class, encouraging students to join them out in Youth Farm’s garden spaces throughout the summer. Jesus took a registration form home and now, over 15 years later, he is a full-time staff member at Youth Farm.
“Every position that I’ve had at Youth Farm has helped me grow a lot and pick up new skills,” Jesus said. “It’s like playing basketball – if you keep practicing at things, you will become better.”
And Jesus has a lot of practice. That first summer, Jesus participated as a Youth Farmer, which he did for several of the following years as well. He then went on to stay involved as an All-Star, Project LEAD, Farm Steward, South Minneapolis Program Manager, and, now, as a Program Specialist. In his current role, Jesus has been the key leader driving school partnership work in St. Paul, which is an area of work that continues to expand at Youth Farm.
When he first started at Youth Farm back in elementary school, Jesus remembers being shy and reserved. He and his family had recently moved to South Minneapolis from Michoacan, Mexico, and he was looking for activities that would both keep him busy and help him make friends.
“The Youth Farm garden was right outside of my apartment building, so my parents didn’t have to worry about driving me anywhere,” Jesus said. “I didn’t have other activities going on over the summer and the garden program was free, so I decided to join.”
During his first summer at Youth Farm, Jesus met a group of neighborhood kids his age and they all went on to become close friends. He also met a number of mentors who would influence the course of his teen years.
“When I was thinking about becoming a LEAD [teen staff member] in tenth grade I was really nervous,” Jesus said. “I was shy and didn’t feel like I knew anything about working with kids, cooking, or gardening. But, I saw the LEAD before me becoming mentors and earning their own money and I wanted to do that too.”
“Even though I didn’t know if I would be good at it, I applied for a LEAD position anyway,” he continues. “I was interviewed and hired right away.”
While others could clearly see the qualities Jesus brought to the LEAD team, he still had some doubts.
“For the first few years, I really felt like I wasn’t the best LEAD because I was still so shy,” Jesus said. “Over time though, I learned that it was okay for me to be shy or not know something, I just needed to be willing to work with people and keep my mind open to learning new things.”
After becoming more comfortable in his position at Youth Farm and building an even wider neighborhood network, Jesus graduated high school and thought his Youth Farm days were over. At the time, programming was only offered through high school, so Jesus prepared to focus his energy on his college classes at Normandale Community College. Sometimes timing works perfectly though, and right as Jesus was preparing to say goodbye, a new door was opened.
“I really wanted to stay part of Youth Farm, so I was excited when one of my mentors, the South Minneapolis Program Director at the time, Phil, told me about a new position opening up at Youth Farm,” Jesus said. “He encouraged me to apply to this new program called ‘Farm Stewards’ where I would work part-time with a group of other young adults to oversee farm management.”
Jesus and this new team piloted the Farm Stewards program which, to this day, engages young adults in leadership and workforce development through garden management and community organizing. As part of this pilot group, Jesus and his peers also helped to improve the program.
“When I first started as a Farm Steward, our team was working all over the Twin Cities,” Jesus said. “After working in this way for a while, we started to realize that transportation was an issue. It didn’t make sense for me to head all the way over to St. Paul to manage gardens when I lived in South Minneapolis. This helped us realize why neighborhood-based programming was so important – I knew South Minneapolis better than St. Paul and it was much more convenient for me.”
“When I focused my work back in the Lyndale neighborhood, I began running regular after school cooking classes,” Jesus continues. “Running these classes helped me realize what my passion was: working with kids. I loved this part of my job, and still do, because it keeps me young and encourages me to have fun. These classes also helped me work on my organizational skills because it was on me to prep agendas for classes, bring materials, and lead.”
Jesus’ leadership as a Farm Steward did not go unnoticed. Both the team at Youth Farm and the community he worked with could tell that he was not only passionate about what he did, he was also very good at it. This made him an obvious choice when the South Minneapolis Program Manager position opened up.
“A lot of people wanted me to manage South Minneapolis programs because I had been at Youth Farm for so long,” Jesus said. “When I was offered the position I took it and was in that role for two years, which eventually led me into my current role.”
Timing doesn’t work out for everyone, but throughout Jesus’ time at Youth Farm, timing has been nearly perfect. As the organization underwent some major changes, Jesus found himself transitioning into a new position once again, one that brought all of his skills and interests together.
“After we transitioned out of South Minneapolis, I was happy to stay at Youth Farm as a Program Specialist, which is my current position,” Jesus said. “After both managing and running programs, I knew that I wanted to be able to do both. As a Program Specialist, I work to coordinate programming with schools in St. Paul and I am also able to deliver the programming that I plan – it is the best of both worlds.”
Over the years, it has been clear to see just how important Jesus is at Youth Farm. As someone who has done, quite literally, everything at the organization, he can relate to any program participant and he has been an important mentor to many.
So, the question is why? Why has Jesus dedicated so much of his life to Youth Farm? “Human beings should be provided healthy options,” he said. “Everything we do at Youth Farm focuses on providing people with better, healthier lifestyles. I am proud that we think about youth who don’t have access to certain resources, like money, because systems, like the food system, usually impact them negatively. Getting them involved is social change.”
Jesus is a testament to the importance of letting young people lead. The change that hundreds of young people will make while following in his footsteps is immeasurable. There is no doubt that leaders like Jesus strengthen community, lift others up, and create a ripple effect that will be felt for years to come.