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.

Mary Lee, right of center in floral bathing suit, enjoying some much needed pool time with program staff and youth, early ’00s

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.

Mary Lee, first row second from left, with West Side Youth Farmers, early ’00s

“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.”

Mary Lee, second from left, visiting then Program Director, Tyler Berres, and West Side Youth Farmers

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?”