25 Years of Leadership: Alumni Feature, Shanna Woods

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.

Shanna, right, at the age of 10 working on program plans with a fellow Youth Farmer.

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.”

Shanna, center, hanging out with a group Youth Farmers.

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.”

Shanna, left, with some of her long-time friends from program during her high school days.

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, right, with Jesus Perez (current full-time staff at Youth Farm) spreading seeds in a South Minneapolis hoophouse.

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.

 

Friday’s Featured Leader: Eliza Thompson

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.

Friday’s Featured Leader: Dani Butler

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.”

Dani, center, leading students from Jackson Elementary School’s summer program in their school garden.

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.

Let the Water Speak

A few weeks ago our Northside team had the opportunity to participate in a powerful event at The Story Garden in the Folwell neighborhood of North Minneapolis. The event, called Let the Water Speak, was co-hosted by Dani Tietjen from the Folwell Neighborhood Association and Marcus Kar from Youth Farm. Local artists, poets, writers, speakers, and musicians gathered to discuss the importance of water and the barriers that have been put up around this precious resource, marginalizing groups of people throughout Minnesota and the world.

The Water Main Project, of Minnesota Public Radio, joined the community to gather around water, with filmmaker D.A. Bullock capturing the evening in a beautiful three part production.

A picture speaks a thousand words, and a video speaks much more. Check out the beautiful faces, food, and sounds that were present at Let the Water Speak:

Part 1:

Minnesota Public Radio – The Water Main Project – Let The Water Speak – Folwell Neighborhood Part 1 from D.A. Bullock on Vimeo.

Part 2:

Minnesota Public Radio – The Water Main Project – Let The Water Speak – Folwell Neighborhood Part 2 from D.A. Bullock on Vimeo.

Part 3:

Minnesota Public Radio – The Water Main Project – Let The Water Speak – Folwell Neighborhood Part 3 and final from D.A. Bullock on Vimeo.

Friday’s Featured Leader: Kaylynn Braun

So many of the young people involved at Youth Farm have grown up before our eyes. Saint Paul Project LEAD Kaylynn Braun is one of them. Now a sophomore at Humboldt High School, Kaylynn has been part of the Youth Farm Family for over five years, first getting involved after a friend of hers had told her about the old summer program. 

“When one of my friends had told be about Youth Farm back in elementary school, I thought it sounded like a cool program, but then he moved away,” Kaylynn said. “Even though he had moved, I was still interested so I got involved anyway and have been here ever since.”

Word of mouth is often how youth first hear about our programs, but their experiences are what have made so many of them stay.

“After those first few years at program, I really felt comfortable at Youth Farm and I loved being involved here,” Kaylynn said. “As I was going into high school, I was of age to become a Project LEAD and I thought, why not? I already loved coming to Youth Farm and as a LEAD I get paid for my work here. It’s a win win!”

Kaylynn’s story is a testament as to why we so highly value our progressive program model. By offering youth new opportunities as they age and mature, they stick around because they are challenged at levels appropriate for where they’re at. 

We completely understand that Kaylynn was interested in taking on a high school employment position, but we always wonder, why this one?

“I think the main reason I’ve always loved being at Youth Farm is because I get to be around a lot of different people,” Kaylynn said. “When I was younger I made so many friends here and I remember just having fun with them. Of course we would learn to plant, grow, and cook things, but I also remember just hanging out and being kids. One of my favorite memories from before my time as a Project LEAD was making videos with my friends in the old playhouse behind the church. We would make fake reality and cooking shows and I just remember it being so funny.”

“Now as a Project LEAD, I still love being around people and I think my favorite part of my job is attending community events,” she continued. “At events we’re always able to help people out, learn more about our community, and spread the word about what we’re doing at Youth Farm.”

It makes us beyond happy to hear that youth like Kaylynn are truly enjoying the time they spend with us. We learn so much from them and wouldn’t be able to do what we do without their support. Of course, as much as we are learning, our biggest hope is that they are learning two times as much through not only our programs, but the community connections they build.

“I think there’s two main things I’ve learned at Youth Farm: gardening skills and leadership,” Kaylynn said. “Simply because I have been in the garden for so many years now, I have learned how to keep plants alive. I’m no green thumb, but I kept all of my plants at home alive this summer. My mom and I are even thinking about expanding our flower garden at home to include some herbs. That way I hope that we can cook more at home than we currently do.”

“Along with gardening, Youth Farm has taught me how to be a leader,” she said. “I feel like now I am able to create a plan to solve a problem on the spot and I’m not always looking for someone else to take the lead when I’m doing that.”

When our youth begin to see themselves as leaders without us reminding them that they are, that’s when we know we’re doing something right. Leaders like Kaylynn make us exceedingly proud, and we know they will do great things beyond their time at Youth Farm. 

Now of course, we understand that not all of the youth we get the pleasure of working with want to become farmers or chefs, and that’s okay! The next generation has so much talent, and we want to see that talent used in a plethora of different ways. Kaylynn has always had a passion for animals, and seeing where that takes her will be an awesome ride. 

“Because animals have always been my first love, I know that I want my career to focus on them,” Kaylynn said. “After high school, I want to go to college to become a vet tech and work at a rescue for a few years. After getting more experience, my ultimate goal is to open a cat cafe. Animals are my biggest passion, but I also love to bake. If I could pair those two things together I would have my dream job.”

With all of her strong leadership skills, a love for animals, and a zest for life, we think it’s just a matter of time before we see Kaylynn landing that dream job. Meet us relaxing at the cat cafe in just a few year’s time, proudly declaring that we’ve known the owner since she was running her bakery out of an old playhouse.

Friday’s Featured Leader: Michael Seye

“Youth are everywhere, they will always be around, and they will always need leaders to help guide them. That’s why the work we do at Youth Farm is so important.” We couldn’t agree more with these words from Northside Project LEAD Michael Seye, who has time and again proven to be an influential leader. 

Michael serving up a Youth Farm salad bar at a summer community event.

Michael has been a dedicated member of the Youth Farm family for seven years. When he was just eight years old his mom saw a Youth Farm flyer and thought our programs might be a good way to get young Michael involved in community activities. We are happy she did because Michael has never looked back and is now in his second year as a Project LEAD.

Michael’s Youth Farm story is a testament as to why we so highly value our progressive programming model. As a Youth Farmer, he explored urban agriculture and cooking, he grew as a role model during his time as an All Star, and he is currently working on building strong leadership and career skills through his role as a Project LEAD.

“Since I started at Youth Farm, I have never taken a break from it,” Michael said. “I love it here and decided to take on the Project LEAD position because Youth Farm offers opportunities that other high school employment programs don’t. Here I am given responsibility to lead other youth and problem solve along the way. Because I am given such an important role, I feel like I am able to make changes in my community that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to make.”

It is always exciting to hear that our youth value our programs and feel as though they are learning from them, but so much of the change our youth are affecting in their communities is happening on their own terms. Michael is not only a leader at Youth Farm, he is also a leader in his own household and community.

“At Youth Farm I have learned a lot of life skills like cooking and gardening,” Michael said. “These skills are really practical and useful in my everyday life. At home I cook dinner for my family two days a week and, although at my house we only have a few potted plants, I have used my gardening skills to help my best friend’s mom plan, plant, and manage her garden.”

It is clear that Michael has a passion for cooking and gardening, but his interests only begin there. This year he is a sophomore at Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts where he is able to further explore his interest and talent for acting. It has been awesome to watch as Michael brings his expertise in performance arts to the Youth Farm family. We can always count on him to feel comfortable in front of the microphone at community events and to instruct younger youth in a fun and engaging way. With so many skills going for him, we are excited to see where Michael ends up in high school and beyond.

Michael with climate activist Tara Houska after he attended an environmental justice panel this spring with important city leaders.

“Even though they are not similar at all, my two chosen career paths right now are either acting or chemical engineering,” Michael said. “No matter what I choose, I for sure want to stay involved at Youth Farm throughout high school and hopefully beyond that. I know that mentoring and leading youth will be part of my life, even into adulthood. I don’t know what that looks like right now, but I want young people to know what opportunities are available to them and that they can make a difference no matter how young they are. Youth are the future!”

As Michael advances throughout his high school career, we hope to continue to help him in developing valuable life skills. Beyond that though, we know we have a lot to learn from him. Our youth continue to teach us more and more about the world every day. If no one has told you lately, our future is in good hands.

Taste of the Farm 2019

First of all, we would like to send a huge thank you to everyone who made our 6th annual Taste of the Farm dinner possible! From our restaurant partners to our volunteers to our guests, what we do at Youth Farm would not be possible without all of you.

This year’s event took on a different feel than past years, with dinner hosted inside of Northside brewery, La Doña Cervecería. La Doña is a fully operational brewery and event space that strives to celebrate the merging of Latino and Minnesotan culture while supporting social, economic, and environmental issues. La Doña’s alignment with the mission and values of Youth Farm made it the perfect space for our signature fundraising event.

La Doña Cervecería’s beautiful, open bar and event space was a perfect setting for this year’s Taste of the Farm dinner.

With this beautiful brewery as our backdrop, we still wanted our guests to have the opportunity to see some of our working gardens. Just blocks from La Doña are two of our Northside gardens, Peace Haven Herbal Garden and Irving Avenue Garden. In true Youth Farm fashion, we brought the farm to the city, offering our guests hayrides to and from our nearby garden spaces.

Youth Farm is lucky to have local farmer friends, one of which ran hayrides from La Doña Cervecería to several of our urban gardens at this year’s Taste of the Farm dinner.

Paired alongside delicious beers from La Doña Cervecería and wine from The Wine Company, this year’s dinner was one for the books! We were beyond ecstatic to have two of the best chefs in Minnesota, Alex Roberts, of Alma and Brasa, and Ann Kim, of Young Joni, tag team the menu for the night. Both Alex and Ann are James Beard award-winners and have been highly respected members of the Twin Cities’ food scene for many years. The menu they created drew on inspiration from the family style eating traditions of Mexico and Korea and featured grilled meats, vegetables, and sauces that were eaten wrapped in fresh tortillas and lettuces.

The beautiful seasonal salad served at Taste of the Farm, made with sungolds, cucumbers, sweet corn, cotija cheese, and citrus vinaigrette.

Throughout dinner, guests heard spoken word from several of our youth, enjoyed music from DJ SciPreme, watched as local artist DelStarr worked his magic, and participated in a live auction. To wrap up the night, desserts were served and raffle winners were announced.

Local artist, Delphin Starr Niyonkuru, known as DelStarr, took the stage at Taste of the Farm to paint throughout dinner, including the pieces he created in the live auction at the end of the night.

We are beyond happy with the way the night came together. Bringing good food, drinks, music, art, and community together is sure to create an experience to remember, and this year’s Taste of the Farm proved just that. As we relax and unwind after another successful dinner, we are overwhelmed with gratitude for the people that support our work. Together, we are uplifting youth in the Twin Cities, allowing them to develop the leadership skills they need to create bright futures for themselves and their communities.

Northside Farm Steward, Sergio Arredondo, received a well-deserved standing ovation after his speech at the Taste of the Farm dinner,

We look forward to hosting many of you at next year’s Taste of the Farm dinner and hope to connect with you somewhere between now and then!

Friday’s Featured Leader: Leo Sovell-Fernandez

Building leaders is what Youth Farm is grounded in. We believe that leaders, no matter how young, can change not only their communities, but the world. However, we also recognize that leadership comes in many forms, both good and bad, and we aim to overcome challenges to produce solely positive change. Our goals may be lofty, but our youth speak for themselves and show us everyday that what we’re doing matters.

In the words of St. Paul Farm Steward, Leo Sovell-Fernandez, “Youth Farm has taught me that good leadership is not built through power, but through relationships. I’ve learned that this concept goes a long way, especially with kids. Build a relationship with them and then give them a little bit of freedom to lead their peers and community, even in something as simple as a kickball game, and they will take pride in it.”

Leo, center in green, leading a volunteer work group on the West Side Farm.

To hear this directly through a young adult that has been involved with our programs for ten years is so gratifying. 

Leo started his time at Youth Farm by coming to West Side St. Paul’s old summer program. After hearing kids on the bus talk about something called “Youth Farm,” he talked to his parents and started attending programs with his sister in 2009. Since that first summer, Leo has been consistently involved with Youth Farm programs, at first coming for only summer programs, and then getting more involved during the school year as he got older. 

“I remember those first couple Youth Farm summers being really fun and coming to program was always somewhere I felt comfortable,” Leo said. “I started getting even more involved when I needed volunteer hours in eighth grade. I decided to volunteer at Youth Farm programs during the school year for the credit I needed and that transitioned right into a Project LEAD role the following year.”

Leo was a dedicated Project LEAD youth staff all the way through high school and has taken on a Farm Steward position this summer. We are so lucky to have him back for the summer before he heads back to Vermont, where he will be a sophomore at Middlebury College. 

After so many years and a college career that has taken him states away, we were interested in knowing why it is that Leo is still so dedicated to Youth Farm after all these years. 

“Eventually I’d love to spend a summer in my college town, but my family and playing competitive ultimate frisbee brought me back to Minnesota this summer,” Leo said. “Youth Farm has been part of my life for such a long time that it felt like a no brainer to take a position here while I was back for the summer. The work I do at Youth Farm is something I really care about. Some of my best friends are people I met here and working with such a great group of people to build community and work with neighborhood kids is so rewarding.” 

Leo, right, with Program Specialist AJ.

Leo has brought so much to Youth Farm, from his passion for sports to his dedication to the West Side neighborhood. We can only hope that we have brought as much positive influence into his life.

“I decided to go to college in Vermont because I have family in New Hampshire, but Youth Farm really helped me get there,” Leo said. “All of my experiences here have been such great resume builders. Back in high school they helped me build a strong application for my study abroad trip to Mexico and that trip along with the skills I built at Youth Farm were really my tickets into Middlebury.”

As Leo heads into his sophomore year as a Geography major, we can only hope to continue to support him, even if this may be his last formal summer at Youth Farm. We realize many of his goals lie out east, but no matter if he chooses to stay there or go elsewhere, we know that he is ready to take on anything that comes his way.  

Friday’s Featured Leader: Seeha Sangwang

At Youth Farm, we are constantly preaching the importance of community connections, and our youth continue to remind us why that is so important.

St. Paul Project LEAD, Seeha Sangwang, has been involved at Youth Farm for about two years, but would never have been connected with us if it weren’t for engaged community partners.

Seeha in his element, the kitchen.

“A while back I was looking for a job at the El Rio Vista rec center,” Seeha said. “I was good friends with the program director there at the time, but he told me that they were full, so they couldn’t hire me. He really wanted to help me out though, so he directed me to a Farm Steward from Youth Farm that was running programs at the rec center throughout the summer. I volunteered for a few days during program and was offered a job almost right away because they saw that I was ready to work and loved leading activities with kids!”

Seeha, who is a senior this year at Humboldt High School, has stayed involved at Youth Farm ever since those first few days of volunteering. We are so glad to have him here because his positive energy and hard work ethic is always welcome at program. 

“I have always liked the Youth Farm experience because it has really gotten me involved in my community and that’s why I’ve chosen to stay,” Seeha said. “I have also had opportunities to meet a lot of important people and work with kids. Through Youth Farm, we are working together to build the next generation.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. Youth like Seeha are instrumental in mentoring younger youth and children and serve as influential role models within their neighborhoods. 

Not only has Seeha been an important mentor to his peers and younger youth, he has also met and worked with several people he really looks up to. 

“The Farm Steward I worked with my first year was a chef, and he had a lot of connections with other chefs in the community,” Seeha said. “He introduced me to a local chef that was hosting a pop-up and I was invited to join as a guest line cook. This was a super cool opportunity for me because my goal is to cook professionally in the future.”

At Youth Farm, our mission is not to build the next generation of farmers, but rather, to use food as a connection point to build leaders who will go on to be successful doctors, teachers, carpenters, mechanics, artists, and chefs. To bring together our youth, like Seeha, with people who are able to help them realize and act on their goals solidifies why we do what we do. 

“Probably the biggest thing that I’ve taken away from Youth Farm is that food brings people together,” Seeha said. “Taking this idea into my own life, I have decided that I really want to become a chef. Next year I am looking into going to St. Paul College for culinary arts. After that I’d like to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in business in order to have the tools to start my own restaurant.”

As Seeha transitions into adulthood, we hope to continue to be a support system for him, helping him build connections that will allow him to achieve his lofty goals. 

Friday’s Featured Leader: Nickolas Vang

As we continue to expand our work with public schools, it is extremely beneficial for us to explore our past successes within these partnerships. 

To say that school partnerships oftentimes serve as a youth’s first experience at Youth Farm would be an understatement. So many of our youth who are now taking on Project LEAD and Farm Steward roles got involved with Youth Farm because they attended an in- or after-school program, and St. Paul Project LEAD Nickolas Vang can attest to that. 

Nickolas (left) learning to make tortillas with Program Specialist, Jesus.

“I think I was in third grade when I started going to after school cooking classes,” Nickolas said. “At that time, I was a student at Jackson Elementary School which is actually the school the Project LEAD team partnered with this summer where we taught younger kids about gardening and growing food.”

It is so rewarding to see the evolution of our youth, especially as many of them grow into the role models they once looked up to. By employing youth that are from the same neighborhoods and backgrounds as the younger youth they are mentoring, Youth Farm is able to create a more connected community through the efforts of these respected youth leaders. 

Speaking of looking up to role models, Nickolas had a pretty good one. 

“I was a youth farmer for many years and during that time my brother actually became a Project LEAD,” Nickolas said. “When I started high school, I followed in his footsteps and applied to be a Project LEAD myself.”

A mission of Youth Farm’s is to engage youth that choose to be involved in our programs themselves. Although many youth begin their involvement with some sort of nudge from their parents or guardians, it is interesting to hear how they got hooked and why they stuck around.

“Like a lot of kids, my parents wanted my brother and I to get outside when we were younger,” Nickolas remembers. “We’ve always had a family garden which has gotten us outside, but Youth Farm was another way for us to do that and ended up being super fun. When I was younger I loved taking Friday field trips. Both me and my brother chose to stay involved for a long time and it was the first job either of us have ever had.”

Nickolas (right) mulching at the main farm in the West Side neighborhood with a fellow LEAD staff.

Now in his second year of the Project LEAD program, Nickolas is looking forward to starting 10th grade and is taking plenty of important skills with him. 

“I’ve been involved at Youth Farm for over six years and I have learned a lot of valuable lessons,” Nickolas said. “Although I have no idea what my plans after high school are, I have learned to be a good time manager, teacher, problem-solver and employee.”

There are no words to explain how proud we are to hear those words from our youth. No matter what they do or where they go, we know they have built the skills for success.