Last month, we were excited to welcome a new member to our full-time staff team: Calvin Battle! Calvin brings a positive attitude, a wealth of knowledge, and a passion for youth work to his role as Program Specialist. We are looking forward to growing with him on our team!
As he begins his journey at Youth Farm, we asked Calvin a few questions to learn more about why he stepped up to his current position and where he hopes to go with it:
Q: How did you first become connected to Youth Farm?
A: Through community engagement and having known Marcus [Northside Program Director] for a long time. Then, at the beginning of the summer of 2020, I was hired on as a Farm Steward.
Q: What led you to accept your current position?
A: I wanted to do more and step up from my position as a Farm Steward while getting more connected with the community and the organization.
Q: What are you most excited for in your new role?
A: COVID and staying at home has been tough, so I am looking forward to hanging out with kids again in some fashion and getting back to the spaces we know so well.
Q: What long-term goals do you hope your time at Youth Farm will help you accomplish?
A: I hope this position will bring me some long-term stability.
Q: What is an interesting characteristic or experience you bring to the team?
A: Sarcasm, directness, and charisma!
Q: Why is food and youth work important to you?
A: To me, this is like asking why we need water – food and youth work is essential and one day I will need another young person to take over my role. I want to see growth in both of these areas.
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.
At Youth Farm, young people focus their efforts heavily on making community impact through food. This past year, Project LEAD Anastasia Thompson took some of Youth Farm’s recipes international, using food to connect to her host family in Spain. During her exchange year, Anastasia whipped up some Youth Farm chilaquiles and shared them with her Spanish family, while they introduced her to some new favorites including Spanish tortilla, Cocido Montañés, and Quesada Pasiega. After almost a decade of being involved in Youth Farm’s programs, Anastasia credits much of her exploratory palate to consistently trying new vegetables in the garden while she was growing up.
“When I was younger, I remember cooking with things that I wouldn’t normally want to eat if I was served it elsewhere, but since I had grown and harvested it I was invested and wanted to try it,” Anastasia said. “Kohlrabi and eggplant are a few vegetables that I wouldn’t eat before, but after growing and cooking them at Youth Farm I have come to love them. In Spain I tried a lot of new foods – one of them was a rice patty with fried pig’s blood. My host family wouldn’t tell me what it was at first, so I just tried it and ended up really liking it.”
Before she became a world traveler, Anastasia got involved with Youth Farm through connections at her church. Her father is the pastor at St. Stephanus Lutheran Church in Frogtown, where Youth Farmers used the kitchen to cook together for many years. After learning to cook and garden as a Youth Farmer and All Star, Anastasia was excited when she was offered a job as a Project LEAD.
“When I was involved in cooking classes as a youth participant [Youth Farmer and All Star] I started to take on more leadership roles, helping younger kids in classes learn new skills.” Anastasia said. “I found leading younger youth participants both fun and rewarding, so I decided to continue doing those things in new ways as a Project LEAD.”
This year, when Anastasia returned from Spain, she was ready to jump right back into her role as a LEAD, but she knew it would look different than previous years.
“In many ways, this year feels somewhat the same to me, our work is just done in smaller groups and we have a bit of a different focus,” Anastasia said. “While we are still gardening and working as a team of Project LEAD, we have taken a break from directly interacting with younger youth. Although I love to do that, this shift has given us the opportunity to re-envision what we are going to do in garden spaces both now and in the future. We have also had time to work on larger projects. We recently built a drip irrigation system at Main Farm and soon we are going to start some other building projects.”
As Anastasia and the rest of the team work through a summer of social distancing, she remembers some of her favorite Youth Farm memories, hoping to make more like them in the future with the return of more in-person gatherings.
“One of my favorite events we’ve done at Youth Farm was the Frogtown Farms kitchen and pizza oven opening,” Anastasia said. “Leading up to the event, we were invited to practice running the oven and then the day-of we made a bunch of pizzas and served them to people. This event really encapsulated what Youth Farm is all about – food, being together, and getting outside.”
This fall, Anastasia will be entering her first year of Post Secondary Enrollment Option (PSEO) classes at the University of Minnesota, where another important component of her work at Youth Farm will be put into play.
“I have learned a lot of leadership skills at Youth Farm,” Anastasia said. “This job [Project LEAD] is different from other jobs because of the level of input we are given as youth. We collaborate and discuss what we want to do as a team and our leadership experiences are unique because they are all neighborhood and community based.”
Throughout the remainder of her high school days, Anastasia plans to use the leadership skills she has gained at Youth Farm and combine them with skills she has learned in other parts of her life, hoping to one day become an international change-maker.
“After I graduate, I would like to get a political science degree followed by a law degree. Eventually, I want to work for the United Nations or another international organization,” Anastasia said. “My travels have really shaped what I want to do and have made it clear to me that I want to live internationally or be connected to international travel.”
With big dreams ahead of her, Anastasia continues to remain committed to working with and for those around her, saying that, “Youth Farm has helped me see that I want to help people no matter what form that takes – small or large scale.”
Her words perfectly capture the power of community work and leadership. At Youth Farm, young people may be growing food right now, but the skills they learn and the connections they make from organizing this work will go far beyond community garden spaces. That impact will travel halfway around the globe.
It is a timeless sentiment: we are able to do more when we work together. However, working together can be hard when you find yourself needing to adhere to strict social distancing practices. As an organization that is centered around gathering, heading into the 2020 growing season left us with many questions: How would we continue to grow food for our neighbors? How would we continue to engage communities in urban gardening? And, most importantly, how would we continue to support the development of young leaders? As we asked ourselves these questions, we realized the answer truly did lie within coming together, just in a different way. Over the course of our organizational history, a vibrant network of community partners has been integral to our work each and every year. This year, we knew that we could still grow alongside our community if we continued to work with these partners in new ways.
An important part of our partnership work each season starts within our St. Paul greenhouse. The greenhouse, which sits on the property of Cherokee Heights Elementary School, serves a number of purposes, including plant education for students and plant distribution for local growers. Beginning as early as February, students seed thousands of plants as part of their school day alongside Youth Farm staff. These plants are then distributed to a multitude of partners throughout the Twin Cities. When the doors of local schools were shuttered in mid-March of this year, hundreds of plant starts in our greenhouse needed attention, and hundreds more needed to be started if we were to deliver on all of our commitments to partners.
Working quickly and collaboratively, the team at Youth Farm developed new safety procedures followed by greenhouse-specific procedures. With the green light to get back in the greenhouse, Program Specialist, AJ, had a lot of work ahead of him. As he began to tend to the plants that were already in the space, a local partner reached out wondering if he could take in thousands of plants that were already started, and needed a home within a greenhouse quickly. He promptly replied, excited about the opportunity and the fact that he wouldn’t have to make thousands of soil blocks by hand, a task that students typically assisted with throughout the season. With all of these new plants, AJ soon realized that there was now actually a surplus in the greenhouse. As a seasoned community organizer and long-time gardener herself, Director of St. Paul Programs, Sarah, knew that time was of the essence, so she quickly began reaching out to partners throughout the Twin Cities, not wanting to see any plants go to waste. Meanwhile, Program Specialist, Jesus, worked closely with schools and teachers throughout the West Side and Frogtown neighborhoods to coordinate school garden spaces for the season.
Vicki Bohling, the Partnership Coordinator at Cherokee Heights Elementary School, found herself in a similar situation, things were changing quickly and she wanted to still meet as many of the needs of students and families as possible. “This year, I tried to stay grounded and adapt to the things that we would normally be doing,” she said. “At first, we didn’t know what the fate would be for anything for the rest of the school year, including the annual plant giveaway that we do with Youth Farm.”
With a surplus of plants ready to go out to local gardeners and interest flowing in from students, families, and school staff members, Vicki knew that distributing plants to the school community was both wanted and needed, and the team at Youth Farm was ready to do it.
“Throughout the month of May, our solid partnership with Sarah, Jesus, and AJ allowed for really fluid conversations that led to the development of a system to get plants out to families from the school,” Vicki said. “Along with the students and families of Cherokee Heights, staff were also really excited about plants. Not only was the team able to package, label, and distribute plants to families, they also created a surplus table where staff members could choose plants to take home.”
Quick organization paid off, as over 40 families took home eight varieties of flowers, vegetables, and herbs, all of which will turn into engaging outdoor growing activities, delicious home cooked meals, and reasons to work and reflect within urban garden spaces. On the other side of town, another school was also excited about the opportunity to continue growing with Youth Farm this season.
Na Yang, a fourth grade Hmong Dual Language teacher at Jackson Elementary School in Frogtown, uses plants for more than just growing food – she has turned them into learning opportunities and cultural connections for her students.
“During my second year of teaching at Jackson, I noticed that there wasn’t much involvement in the school garden,” Na said. “I decided to get more involved in the space, so I started planting and used the process of growing to teach my classes about life cycles.”
Over the next few years, Na continued to use the school garden space as a place for her and her class to grow together. She also used it as a space to connect her students to the Hmong culture, to which many of them belong.
“Every year I grow Hmong vegetables and herbs in the garden and then the students and I harvest, cook, and enjoy the food together. I also teach them the Hmong words for all of the foods – it’s a cultural experience for them,” Na said. “This year, since my students were not able to help me plant, AJ and Jesus came with plants from Youth Farm and helped me get the garden ready.”
Along with a network of students, teachers, and neighbors, Na is confident that the garden will be a success this year and will continue to provide a space for learning, connections, and access to delicious vegetables and herbs.
At Youth Farm, we know that spaces like Na describes are important to youth and community members alike. As plants continued to make their way out of the greenhouse, we looked beyond our school partners to see how our plants could support other organizations working to create outdoor learning opportunities. If we were not able to offer the regular amount of direct programming to young people ourselves, we knew that providing resources to others who also work with young people was the next best option.
The Urban Farm and Garden Alliance (UFGA) is a network of urban garden spaces in the Rondo and Frogtown neighborhoods, working to connect and heal communities through gardening. Several years ago, Steph Hankerson, a collaborator with UFGA, worked side-by-side with Youth Farmers in the Frogtown neighborhood and every year since she has connected with Youth Farm in some way, be it through programming or plant distribution. This year, with an uncertain budget and shifting programming, UFGA’s need for free plants was evident.
“When AJ reached out to me after taking in more plants, I knew it would be a huge help to UFGA,” Steph said. “Money is tight, so free plants are an important resource that help us keep our programming going.”
One of the programs UFGA runs is a children’s gardening program. Megan Phinney, the coordinator for the program, was able to use some of Youth Farm’s plants in garden kits sent to families, which will be used to run the program virtually this season.
“This year the interest for gardening was still there among our community, but resources were lacking,” Megan said. “As urban gardeners, collaborative partnerships, like the one we have with Youth Farm, are so valuable and are truly what keep us all growing.”
In addition to the children’s gardening program, plants from Youth Farm went to dozens of backyard gardens and eight community gardens in the UFGA network.
“Each year partnerships like this have to adapt,” Steph said. “But gardening still remains not only an interest, but a need of the community. The network of partners that our community of growers has created is making a ripple effect – these plants are going from large growers, to organizations like Youth Farm, to community gardens, to families, to children. The impact keeps carrying on.”
After wondering whether or not we could keep growing for partners we had committed to, and long-time partners like UFGA, over the past few weeks we have actually found ourselves connecting with new partners.
In the same vein as the garden at Jackson Elementary School, Melissa Wenzel has been nurturing a native pollinator garden at Highwood Hills Elementary School on the east side of St. Paul. In 2018, the garden was designed by a local Eagle Scout from an all-Hmong Boy Scout troop as his senior project, and Melissa has since taken over the coordination of it. With some gaps still needing to be filled throughout the garden, she reached out to the Twin Cities gardening community on a perennial exchange Facebook page, where Program Director, Sarah, immediately drew a connection. Sarah knew that Youth Farm had access to a number of native plants through a garden that AJ had started and she also felt a strong connection to Highwood Hills, as one of her best friends is a teacher there and last summer Youth Farm came to work with the kids in her class.
“Sarah reached out to me letting me know that Youth Farm had connections to a variety of native plants that I was interested in,” Melissa said. “Within a few days AJ came to deliver 20 plants in eight different varieties. This simple, yet impactful, connection was so important to me because so many people travel through this space and truly appreciate it. It is a place where people can come, reflect, and connect.”
Carolyn Chisholm, Sarah’s longtime friend and Highwood Hills teacher, agrees. “The principal, along with the staff and community, have made it a priority to make sure this [Highwood Hills Elementary] is a place where people can feel pride,” she said. “The pollinator garden is another important way in which people can feel connected and enjoy the community here.”
Over the next few years, we hope the connection to the pollinator garden at Highwood Hills allows our partnership to expand. Last year, Jesus was able to come out to Carolyn’s class and do a “test run” of sorts to see what future programming could look like. Both Melissa and Carolyn are excited to see how the budding possibilities to connect classrooms, gardens, and Youth Farm programming at Highwood Hills could play out over the coming seasons.
Not only does Carolyn see the importance of experiential learning, she is also excited about the way in which program participants can learn from each other.
“My class was so excited to learn from Jesus because he is the perfect mix between ‘cool kid’ and teacher,” Carolyn said. “As an alum of Youth Farm’s programs, he has a special connection to students and understands how to engage them. This continuous process of learning from each other is so incredibly valuable.”
With plants now making their way into the ground across the Twin Cities, we continue to collaborate where we can. In each neighborhood, we strive to listen to the needs of the community and identify how we can be a part of meeting those needs while still keeping ourselves and others safe.The power of partnerships is woven within the fabric of the success of our entire organization and has been instrumental in our work this growing season. In a year of uncertainty, we have been certain of one thing – the communities we collaborate with are making an impact far beyond what we can write here, and that is the fire we need to keep doing what we do best: growing.
For almost a decade, community organizing, beautifying public spaces, and bringing young leaders together have been central activities in Divine Islam’s life.
Back in 2011, after an EF1 tornado hit North Minneapolis, Divine took on her first job at Project Sweetie Pie, an organization focused on building community through urban gardens. As Divine worked to beautify spaces across the Northside, she soon became deeply connected with garden work.
“After Project Sweetie Pie I started working at Emerge where I accepted a summer job maintaining the garden at St. Olaf Lutheran Church,” Divine remembers. “That summer I met JP, the Northside Program Director from Youth Farm at the time. Eventually I also met Mela and Sergio, a couple Youth Farmers who were working with JP at the St. Olaf garden. We all got to know each other really fast and eventually I was offered a job for the following summer – I agreed right away!”
“When I came to Youth Farm, I immediately noticed that it was the perfect marriage between working with the earth and working with kids – two of the things I am most passionate about,” Divine continues. “As a big sister, I have always had a strong desire to nurture and mentor younger kids, and that was a central part of my role at Youth Farm. I quickly fell in love with my work and also found a family that cared as much as I did about the food and community we were growing together.”
During her time at Youth Farm, Divine was a leader through her roles as a Project LEAD participant, nonprofit intern, and Farm Steward. She took on projects ranging from co-managing greenhouse work to grant writing and built upon her strengths and interests along the way.
“Throughout the years, I learned that Youth Farm was really giving me, and other youth, the chance to grow in a variety of ways,” Divine said. “Not only were we growing as community leaders, we were also growing both physically and mentally through eating nutritious foods together and taking care of something greater than ourselves. As young people, we became extremely community-oriented, focused on tackling current issues like climate change, and comfortable teaching each other new things.”
Of course, as any family does, Divine and her tight-knit group of fellow Youth Farmers faced a variety of unexpected hurdles throughout their time in the garden. From inclement weather to the occasional garden mishap, learning to navigate the unexpected was an everyday activity.
“One thing you never expect to learn as a young leader is how to keep others calm when blood is involved,” Divine said. “I remember one summer when one of of our Youth Farmers cut his finger open with a knife. I went into full-on problem solving mode and cut off a piece of my shirt to tie around the injury. It might sound crazy, but moments like that were when I realized that our work together throughout the community really made us a family. We were close enough and cared enough about the same things that he trusted me to help take care of him when he was hurt.”
As she has developed into a successful young adult, it has always been clear to see that Divine possesses an overwhelming amount of compassion for people, especially those who make up the community she surrounds herself with.
“When I moved on and went to college, I never stopped caring deeply about young people and their development as leaders,” Divine said. “In May of 2019 I graduated from St. Kate’s with a business degree, but I knew I wasn’t going to stop there. I am now in a teaching fellowship program and I am considering continuing on into special education. I’m not entirely sure what the future looks like for me, but I’m excited to see where this stage in life takes me.”
As time moves on and the world changes from day to day, Divine reminds us to be sure of one thing, “Even though it is quite simple, by caring for the earth and the community, you learn to be part of something greater and with that comes a great deal of empathy and compassion.” This is a lesson that is arguably more pertinent now than ever before.
During the sweltering summer of 2000, Mary Lee Vang, a 15-year-old high school student from the West Side of St. Paul, spent her days crafting meals over a hot stove. Each morning, her and a friend would collect food from neighborhood markets and bring it back to the kitchen of their summer host. They would spend hours chopping, cooking, and serving food to neighborhood youth and community members as part of their role as Project LEAD at Youth Farm. Since those hot summer days 20 years ago, Mary Lee has gone on to accomplish many things including earning her masters degree in social work, taking on several roles during her eight years at the Community-University Health Care Center, and becoming a mother to six happy kids.
As another winter slowly turns into summer, Mary Lee reflects on how her time at Youth Farm impacted her path in life and helped her land where she is today.
“When I first met Gunnar at the Neighborhood House on the West Side, I was so shy and introverted,” she said. “It is crazy to think about now because I don’t think anyone would label me as an introvert anymore. I truly think I learned how to speak for myself by being trusted with so many responsibilities at such a young age.”
Even as a young, quiet teenager, Mary Lee had a hard work ethic and was eager to learn, qualities that would later break her out of her shell. Those qualities were quickly realized by Youth Farm’s West Side Program Director, Gunnar Liden (now Youth Farm’s Executive Director). Gunnar had been assisting with a program at the Neighborhood House where Mary Lee attended a homework help group. As he began to recruit young leaders to help design and run Youth Farm’s first year of summer programming on the West Side, he quickly offered Mary Lee a job.
“Gunnar approached me at the right time,” Mary Lee said. “I was looking for a summer job and he needed help getting the West Side’s first Youth Farm summer program off the ground, so it was a win-win.”
That first summer on the West Side turned into many summers for Mary Lee, and 20 years later she still remembers why it meant so much to her.
“At first, I stayed involved at Youth Farm because I really loved working with younger kids,” Mary Lee said. “But eventually it became something much more. The second year I was involved in West Side programming we started our weekend market. Those markets made me realize that we were involved in something much bigger than ourselves at Youth Farm. As young people, we were involved in growing, gathering, and distributing food to our communities, and this felt huge. We were able to produce valuable resources, sell them at a fair price, and make a profit. Even though our profits were pretty small, they were so empowering. We had made important decisions and done something on our own.”
Not only did Mary Lee’s high school years at Youth Farm empower her as a leader, she also made impactful cultural and intergenerational connections.
“Youth Farm didn’t just teach me about food and farming,” Mary Lee said. “The programs we were running also involved a lot of personal learning. I remember going to a Khmer Rouge reenactment as a group and that has impacted me to this day. As a teenager, the things my family had gone through never really hit home for me. It was so powerful to attend this simulation and understand why my relatives had made the choices they did.”
“The Khmer Rouge experience was one of many things that really helped me connect to people outside of my age group,” she continues. “That was a huge part of working in community – being able to connect to kids, youth, adults, and elderly people.”
Mary Lee’s love for connecting with people has taken her in many directions throughout the course of her career. She has worked with every age group and has now settled into a position working with seniors. As an insurance care coordinator for Medica, Mary Lee advocates for the wellbeing of a caseload of seniors, many of which she says feel they do not have an important voice within society.
“Throughout the years I have learned that our society really values the middle aged, people that are of employment age,” Mary Lee said. “Youth and seniors are often impacted the most by issues within society, but a lot of times feel their voices aren’t heard. Throughout my career I have really focused on giving these groups of people a voice. I think Youth Farm really put this call on me because as a young person I was told that I was a leader and my voice mattered. I was told that the changes I made would impact the future of my community and I want other people to feel that as well.”
There is no doubt that Mary Lee’s impact as a leader has reached far beyond her teenage years at Youth Farm. Not only has she made a plethora of multigenerational relationships, she has also put her gardening skills to the test.
“A few years back, when I was working at the Community-University Health Care Center, some coworkers and I helped put together a garden project,” Mary Lee said. “From my time at Youth Farm, I understood how therapeutic gardening could be and, at the time, I was working as a mental health professional. The first few weeks of the program everyone was so impressed with my gardening skills, and I got to look back at how much I had learned all those years ago at Youth Farm.”
Mary Lee and her coworkers worked alongside the community to get their garden space up and running. In the long run, the project proved to be successful and allowed mental health workers to further explore the therapeutic benefits of gardening.
As Mary Lee now navigates the ins and outs of career and family life, she continues to look back on many of the everyday lessons she picked up from her time at Youth Farm.
“Youth Farm really allowed me to, in both big and small ways, impact and care for others,” she said. “As a woman, a mother, and a professional, I find it so important to teach young people, especially my children, that their voices matter. They can be leaders within their community and they can make change no matter how old they are.”
As times change, and the fight for equity and justice continues, we stand firm with Mary Lee. Young and old alike can make change. And, she points out, “When it comes to change, if you don’t do it, who will?”
Teachers truly don’t receive enough credit. For decades, maybe even centuries, teachers have not only taught young people how to read, write, and multiply, they have also served as community connectors. Over the past 25 years, Youth Farm has seen just how instrumental teachers are in the lives of young people.
When Tyler Berres was in seventh grade at Humboldt Junior High School, he decided to take an elective biology class, at first simply because some of his friends were also taking the class. Eventually, he discovered that his science teacher had teamed up with Youth Farm to create a more hands on student experience. After the school year was over, thanks to the community connections his teacher had made, Tyler stayed involved at Youth Farm for the next 15 years and still keeps in touch with a number of people he met through the program.
“Initially, my friends kept me involved at Youth Farm,” Tyler said. “Eventually though, I realized that the work we were doing was important. As a young person, it is easy to feel tokenized or have adults speak for you, but at Youth Farm I felt empowered to lead.”
Over the years Tyler made his way through Youth Farm’s entire progressive program model and also served as a youth board member, Assistant Program Director, Farm Camp Coordinator, and West Side Program Director.
“Throughout my younger years, Youth Farm was a place I felt safe and supported,” Tyler said. “Gunnar played a huge role as a mentor for me and to this day I really appreciate that. When I didn’t feel comfortable addressing issues with my family or other adults, I turned to the staff at Youth Farm.”
As Tyler matured and took on increasingly challenging roles at Youth Farm, he soon became a mentor to younger youth, much like the mentors he had looked up to while growing up.
“Before I was hired, I saw the West Side Program Director position as a dream job for myself,” Tyler said. “I wanted to continue supporting youth to design Youth Farm’s programming and make it their own.”
When Tyler took on the role as the West Side Program Director he did just that. It was an honor to see him mature from a middle school participant to a full-time program staff member.
“My time as a program director truly impacted my life because I was able to give young people the same opportunities that I had,” Tyler said. “It was so exciting to connect with students in their schools and neighborhoods and introduce them to a program I knew would impact both their lives and the lives of people around them.”
During his four years as the West Side Program Director, Tyler enjoyed working with the members of the West Side community, hosting “Fun Fridays” that included youth-run talent shows, and building unbreakable bonds with young leaders who were following in his footsteps.
“As the West Side Program Director, I had the privilege to work alongside some of the most dedicated people I’ve ever met,” Tyler said. “The staff team we had at Youth Farm truly made our programs happen and were always invested in seeing youth succeed.”
As we all do, Tyler eventually found himself amidst a season of change. After 15 years, it was time for him to say farewell to his time at Youth Farm. However, he has never said goodbye to his Youth Farm family.
“After all my time at Youth Farm, I still wanted to stay in youth work,” Tyler said. “In 2015 I started working as a Program Assistant in Community Education with Saint Paul Public Schools. Just like my time as the West Side Program Director, this position was also extremely youth-focused. My efforts were focused on organizing out-of-school-time programming and being a co-facilitator of the Student Engagement and Advancement Board.”
“Working with students throughout the SPPS district was amazing because I really got to witness the authenticity of their voices and the passion they had for the projects and policies they were proposing. My experience at Youth Farm really helped me launch into this role because I already had experience working with Youth Farm’s Board as both a student and adult. It was also cool to see how Youth Farm was being so highly regarded throughout SPPS.”
After four years with Saint Paul Public Schools, Tyler took on arguably his most challenging role to date – fatherhood.
“In April of 2019 my wife and I welcomed our first child,” Tyler said. “Partway through the summer I decided I wanted to spend more time at home and ended up leaving my role at SPPS. The past few months have really been focused on completing projects around our house and spending as much time with my daughter as I can.”
As Tyler moves into another new chapter of his life, he has taken some time to reflect on everything that’s gotten him here.
“Working at Youth Farm taught me that designing safe, welcoming, and inclusive program spaces set our young people up for success. Youth Farm’s programs have always been gathering spaces where young people from different areas of their neighborhood could connect with each other and contribute to their community. In all of my future endeavors, I hope to continue creating these types of spaces.”
“I also think I became really well prepared for seasons of change like the one I am in now,” Tyler said. “Each year in the garden we poured our heart and soul into growing plants in the summer and then we would have this beautiful harvest in the fall. When gardens started to wither and go dormant for the winter, it was easy to feel a sense of grief. We had worked so long and so hard for something and then it seemed to be gone in the blink of an eye. However, I quickly learned that this season of grief was really one of hope. We put our heads together to figure out where we fell short and how we could improve our efforts next season. Each year only became better and better because we had learned from the previous years. I have carried this lesson with me because life is the same.”
“Seasons of change may seem overwhelming, but ultimately they can lead to some really great things. That lesson has brought me to today, where I find myself in this amazing season of fatherhood. One I have been preparing for all of my life, and one I truly love.”
Even with all of the changes life brings, we are sure of one thing, Tyler has proven to be both a great leader and a great father. We are proud to be part of the story that’s led him here and also remember the teachers, leaders, and youth voices that guided him along the way.
Check out Saint Paul Public Schools Student Engagement and Advisory Board’s website to see how the efforts of youth leaders are being carried on: spps.org/seab.
In the summer of 1999, Elsie Churchill, who had recently relocated to Minneapolis from Chicago, kept noticing a group of neighborhood youth working in an urban garden right below her 16th floor window in the Charles Horn Towers. As a seasoned community organizer, it was a natural instinct for her to investigate – after all, she was eager to connect to her new South Minneapolis home.
With the help of her eight-year-old granddaughter, Shanna Woods, Elsie discovered that these youth were part of a neighborhood program called Youth Farm. Every day throughout the summer they would tend to the Charles Horn Towers’ garden and then, when their produce was ready to harvest, they would sell it at neighborhood markets. Elsie and Shanna hadn’t seen anything like this before, and young Shanna begged her grandma to help her get involved. Little did either of them know, this neighborhood garden project would impact the entire trajectory of Shanna’s life.
From the ages of eight to 24, Shanna made her way through every stage of Youth Farm’s progressive program model, eventually also serving as an interim program director and board member. After 21 years, her passion for the program has never faded.
“During my time in the garden I felt so at home,” Shanna said. “I had grown up eating collard greens and sweet potatoes and, when I entered the Youth Farm gardens, I would see those things growing. At program we would cook them up together and I would share my connection with those foods with all of my peers. And, in the same respect, we would cook and explore the culinary experiences of other cultures. In a time before diversity, equity, and inclusion were buzz words being thrown around, Youth Farm was already doing all of those things. As a young black girl I felt represented and heard. I felt like my culture mattered and I became responsive to the cultures of others as well. By growing in this way together, the people at Youth Farm quickly became my family.”
Not only did Shanna begin to connect with the people in her neighborhood, she also began to connect with her abilities as a leader.
“Year after year I kept coming back to Youth Farm because it truly made me feel important,” Shanna said. “When I was younger I struggled with self confidence. I never thought I would be a leader and I would often doubt my ability to accomplish big tasks, but everyone at Youth Farm pushed me so hard and they would never let me give up.”
“At the age of 15 I was sitting with companies working on budgets, evaluating farm management systems, and putting what I had learned in the garden into real world business decisions. We weren’t doing anything cute like picking team colors, we were making an impact on our neighborhood as youth. I had never seen young people pushed and trusted like that before and, in a neighborhood where the word ‘privilege’ isn’t thrown around a lot, I felt extremely privileged to be part of Youth Farm.”
Like many children, Shanna was upset when her family had to uproot her life in the Lyndale neighborhood and move to Brooklyn Center. At first, Shanna was resentful of the move. She had found something in Lyndale that she thought she could never find anywhere else. Soon enough though, her resentment turned into motivation.
“My move to Brooklyn Center didn’t cut my time at Youth Farm short,” Shanna said. “I was still just as involved as I was before, but eventually I knew that I had to connect to my new neighborhood as well. Youth Farm taught me that there are unique opportunities in every area, but oftentimes you have to seek them out. I became involved with Friends of the Library and Earth Fest in Brooklyn Center and eventually gained a fresh perspective on my new home.”
Connecting to neighborhoods in Minnesota was very important to Shanna, but her time at Youth Farm took her even further.
“One of my fondest memories from Youth Farm was visiting Philly Farm in Wisconsin,” Shanna said. “Our trips there connected the work we were doing in Minneapolis to the larger food system. We saw a formal organic farm in action and how cultural responsiveness could be enacted on a larger scale. As young people who had been working so hard to impact the food system in our neighborhoods, trips like this validated our work.”
The process of planning, planting, tending, and harvesting a garden may seem simple. However, the decisions that go into making this process successful are multi-faceted. They take time, resources, and expertise. For the last 25 years, the young people at Youth Farm, like Shanna, have been taking the lead in these decision making processes and using their knowledge of the needs of their neighborhoods to ensure that the produce they grow makes the largest impact.
“Throughout the course of my youth, I was taught to problem solve, community organize, and connect to resources. None of these skills have ever left me,” Shanna said. “I appreciated so much that the young people at Youth Farm were never pacified. Our opinions mattered and we were each encouraged to work with our strengths.”
Now in her late 20s, Shanna recently graduated from Metropolitan State University with a degree in social science with an emphasis on political science. She has taken her experience and education into her career and currently works as an employment coach at Lifetrack in St. Paul.
“Throughout the years, Youth Farm has impacted so many of the decisions I’ve made. I have maintained jobs in the nonprofit sector, continued to use the outdoors as a space for reflection and connection, and taken on community organizing and sustainability opportunities that I would have never turned to if it weren’t for Youth Farm,” Shanna said. “I, like many other people, have stayed so connected to the Youth Farm family because this organization refuses to sell out. No opportunities will ever be pursued that don’t benefit youth. This program is personalized, responsive, and effective and I cannot sing its praises enough.”
Shanna has been an integral part of the Youth Farm family and it is clear to see how the organization has shaped her life. However, one special person deserves an outpouring of credit for the overwhelming success of this young woman. Elsie Churchill was much more than just Shanna’s grandmother, she was a shining example of a strong black woman who connected to her community and led the way for others to follow in her footsteps. Looking forward, Shanna hopes to honor the memory of her late grandmother, but it truly seems as though she has already made not only her grandmother, but her entire community, proud.
Using the phrase “the Youth Farm family” is always intentional and St. Paul Project LEAD Eliza Thompson is a perfect example of that. When she was just eight years old she followed in her older sister’s footsteps and started attending Youth Farm programming. Not only do many youth attend programming as a family, they also build connections with other families in their neighborhoods to build the larger Youth Farm family.
The Thompson sisters had a long history with Youth Farm even before they got involved with direct programming, as their father was, and still is, the pastor at St. Stephanus Lutheran Church in Frogtown. For years, the church has shared their kitchen space with Youth Farm, so the entire Thompson family has long been used to Youth Farmers buzzing around them.
“It was pretty inevitable for me to get involved with Youth Farm because it had been part of my life for so long,” Eliza said. “I’ve chosen to stay involved though because I truly love gardening and cooking. It is really cool to see the plants we grow turned into meals that we can serve to other people.”
Over the years, Eliza and her family have created many memories at Youth Farm. When asked what her favorite memory has been, she said, “Oh man, there’s so many of them. I’ve always loved cooking for the rest of the kids at program during the summer. Then, during the school year I remember that some of my friends from elementary school and I would ride our bikes to the Pierce Butler farm, work in the garden for a while, and then play games and be kids, always spraying each other with the hose and just having fun.”
Although there’s no doubt that Eliza will continue to make fun memories at Youth Farm, she has also taken on more responsibility with her role as a Project LEAD.
“I just started ninth grade at Great River School which means I am now old enough to be a Project LEAD,” Eliza said. “It was a natural transition and I am excited to make more decisions. Now instead of helping LEAD staff at programs and following their example, I am one of those staff members. Although I just started this position, through the hiring process I have already learned how to fill out a job application, interview, and complete tax forms.”
As she begins her high school career alongside her LEAD staff role at Youth Farm, Eliza is starting to think about her interests and how they might shape her future.
“I have no idea what I want to do yet when I graduate high school, but I have a lot of things I’m interested in,” Eliza said. “I really love riding and fixing bikes and I actually learned a lot about fixing them through people at Youth Farm. I also love reading, cooking, and gardening. Through Youth Farm I have learned a lot about maintaining a garden and harvesting food safely and at home I do a lot of cooking. I don’t know where all of these things will lead me, but I am sure over the next few years I’ll begin to find out.”
As our newest Project LEAD hire, Eliza is looking forward to learning more and becoming one of the role models she has always looked up to.
A three sport athlete, a dancer, a student, and a leader. These are just some of the words that can be used to describe Dani Butler. On top of her already busy schedule, Dani is also taking on her first year as a Project LEAD at Youth Farm. After being a part of the Youth Farm family for three years, she naturally transitioned into her current role.
“I’ve been a part of Youth Farm since I was in sixth grade,” Dani, now a freshman at Open World Learning (OWL), said. “I originally got involved because one of my friends had been in programs here when she was younger and I’ve been here ever since.”
As Dani takes on more responsibilities in her high school career, we asked her what led her to prioritize becoming a Project LEAD at Youth Farm.
“I think one of the main reasons I have stayed at Youth Farm for so long is because I love learning to cook,” Dani said. “We are always making things here that I’m not used to cooking at home and it’s really cool to learn new recipes. I use the kitchen skills I’ve learned to make lunch for my siblings at home.”
“I also really love learning about gardening. I think I’ll always be more passionate about cooking, but I have learned how to grow plants and we have had small gardens at home where we grow things like herbs.”
As Dani has been gardening, cooking, and eating with her peers and family, she has been doing all of these things in a conscious way.
“Over the past few years I have learned a lot about healthy eating,” Dani said. “I am now so much more aware of plants and food and where they come from.”
Outside of the kitchen, Dani has also recently been exploring her role as a leader for younger youth.
“I think my favorite part of my current role as a Project LEAD has been working with kids at Jackson Elementary School this summer,” Dani said. “I’ve realized that I really enjoy being around kids, but Youth Farm is also just a great place to make friends and be around people in general.”
There is so much in store for Dani as she continues on through her high school career and then into adulthood.
“Right now I am still figuring out what I want to do,” Dani said. “I just started high school and haven’t given much thought yet to what I want to do when I graduate. I am interested in so many different things and it’s so hard for me to pick just one thing I am passionate about.”
With an abundance of skills and interests, there is no doubt that Dani is going places! As she continues to grow as an athlete, student, and leader, we are excited to see where her passions land – no doubt leading her directly into success.