IMG_1916I am always proud of that our blog does a pretty good job of capturing a variety of moments that happen throughout the year, the silly moments, the mission focused moments, and the moments that capture and convey the visual images of our work. The one thing that has been missing is seeing and understanding the impact Youth Farm can have on not just the young people involved, but their families. As Executive Director of Youth Farm for the past 10 years and West Side Program Director the 7 years before that, I have been privileged over the past 16+ years to hear from hundreds of families about the impact Youth Farm has beyond the fields and the kitchens, but all the unique ways Youth Farm influences life at home, when sounds bites are not being requested, and photo opportunities are not that obvious. These interactions with parents and family members happen everywhere, at the baseball field, in the grocery store, walking my dog around the neighborhood, and they allow me a great opportunity to get a true sense of how well we are at living out our mission.
Those of you who know me well, know that family and active engagement in my children’s lives is a defining characteristic of who I am and what I do. I share my passion for sports and Pittsburgh with my family, but more so I also share my passion for my work and the social justice nature of the work with them. This summer, I had the privilege of experiencing Youth Farm as a parent myself, as my 9 year old son, Kahlil, participated in the West Side Youth Farm Summer Program for the first time. My wife and I have always been hesitant to not push him to do Youth Farm, being cognizant of the importance of Kahlil finding his own way and interests in the world, and knowing that when I was a Program Director, the only youth that did not seem to have a meaningful experience were the ones that were only there because their parents signed them up. That being said, when late spring rolled around, a couple of my sons friends in baseball had done Youth Farm the year before and encouraged him to come, explaining how much fun they had throughout the summer. This was the final selling point – Kahlil signed up eager to be with his good friend, but what he got, and what we experienced as a family was much, much more.
Throughout the summer, I took the opportunity to document and journal some of the more impactful and engaging moments of his and our experiences, with the goal of sharing them through our blog. While Kahlil has grown up within the “Youth Farm family” since birth (he attended his first Harvest Festival a one week old), and has always been open to trying new and different foods, it has been a great summer watching him come into his own as a true Youth Farmer!
Here are some of the highlights:
  • First day – I think I was more nervous about Kahlil’s first day at Youth Farm than I was for his first day at school. Would he like it? Would he make friends? Would my passion and life’s work be something that brings us together? I was so pleased when I picked him up and he was excited to talk about how great the spanakopita was at lunch (yes, we have awesome spanakopita during our summer lunches). That began a 3 day a week ritual of bonding over how great the food is at Youth Farm, what new foods he tried, and what fun activities he did with his new “Youth Farm friends”.
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    Compost “eating” contest

    Green Thumb – Probably my most proud moment was showing up for lunch a little early during the 2nd week of the summer program and getting to see Kahlil (unbeknownst to him) be awarded a “Green Thumb” award for his strong work in the farms that morning. Watching from afar, I was able to see the pride in his demeanor as he looked with confidence around the circle of Youth Farmers, almost to say, “Yep, that’s right, I did awesome work today, and am really proud of it!” I also saw the excitement of a 9 year old who then got to eat first for lunch (a long standing tradition at Youth Farm is the “Green Thumb” winners get to eat lunch first). Rarely do we get to see our children get publicly recognized for their good work at places outside of home, and even more rarely do elementary age youth verbalize all that happens throughout the day, I was a proud Dad that day.

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    Our Jalapeño garden at home

    IMG_0884Jalapeño planting – During the 3rd week of the summer program, Kahlil was extremely excited to bring home the leftover Jalapeño plants that they had from Youth Farm to plant at home. We have always bonded over spicy food, and Grilled Jalapeños poppers are one of our favorites. When we got home, he went rushing to one of our 3 raised beds and turned over the soil, planted the 8 jalapeño plants, and then talked non-stop for an hour about how excited he was for them to be done. We just harvested them a couple of weeks ago for the first time, getting a haul of over 30 Jalapeños, and grilled them up with our family as we gathered for Labor Day – they were quite the spicy jalapeños, labored with lots of love.

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    Kahlil cooking dinner for our family

    Creating his “Youth Farm” Friends, Trying new food, and Compost Winners – One of the things you will often hear (adult) Youth Farm alumni talk about when asked about what was meaningful in their Youth Farm experience was the experience of creating a set of friends that is based around place, around shared interest, and around doing good. This is something that happens because Youth Farm is a place that believes in young people to make real choices, pushes them to think of others, and understands the importance of place in a young persons life. Watching Kahlil throughout the summer engage with new friends, feel comfortable to strengthen his older friendships, and be pushed to own the importance of the decisions he was making around the farm – was spectacular. This happened in fun ways, when Kahlil and his group of friends at Youth Farm playing “drip, drip, splash”, which quickly turned into, “Splash, Splash, Drench!” an all important shift for the 9-10 year old boys. Lunches continued to be a great bonding point for us, even in the things he did not like. While he is someone who has an open pallet and for the most part loves vegetables, he really never has liked salad that much, but one quote from him stuck with me, “I usually don’t like it (salad) that much, but I always eat it.”


    There was much rejoicing when the West Side Youth Farm was presented as the winners of the 2015 Compost Cup

    I love that Youth Farm culture of always trying food has done a better job at getting him to experience salad that we do at home for dinner. Getting a text from my wife one night late in the summer when I was at a Youth Farm board meeting of Kahlil cooking dinner for the family was heart warming. The other great memory is the day that our Associate Director, Amanda Stoelb and I were able to bring over and present the “Compost Cup” to the West Side for having the hottest compost amongst the 5 Youth Farm neighborhoods. Celebration that ensued was great. The pride in work as an individual, as a farm group and as a neighborhood was palpable.

I recognize that my work at Youth Farm over the last 16 years makes this parent experience different and probably more unique than many other families, but I don’t think it makes it any better. I love that when I run into parents, both at Youth Farm and randomly around town, so many of them have little stories to share about how Youth Farm shapes their children’s experiences with their peers or their families relationship with food and their neighborhood. Food is the great equalizer here and the thing that brings family together, young people together with new and old friends, and neighborhoods together to rethink and challenge long held beliefs about what young people can contribute to the world. I see young people living the mission everyday, at our office, in the farms, and now in my home with my son Kahlil, that the answer is that there is a generation of young people driving great change – and food is that tool.