Growing Young Leaders in SE Raleigh
Forty middle schoolers are seeing—and eating—the fruits of their labor at the YMCA Urban Leadership Garden, which they have nurtured, literally, from the ground up. It’s all part of their participation in the Y Learning Program in Southeast Raleigh, across the street from St. Augustine University.
In a house owned by the university, students from 5 middle schools gather Monday-Thursday after school for this tutorial program, which has a focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education activities. The Urban Leadership Garden is in the back yard, and now includes 16 raised beds and a row of blueberry bushes.
“The students decide what to grow, they plant and harvest, prepare the beds for the next season, and now they are working to learn how much to grow to turn a profit and so the garden can sustain itself,” said Mike Lewis, Senior Director of Community Outreach Teens at the Alexander Family YMCA, which partners with St. Augustine.
“We’re collecting wood to build a vegetable stand and sell the produce in the community at a discounted rate, and the cafeteria at St. Augustine’s has agreed to buy some of the produce as well,” Lewis continued. “We’re not sure yet if the vegetable stand will be mobile or stationery, but the students are working to figure that out. We’re talking about how to promote it to the community, and also mentoring the students about how to talk to adults about the garden.” For Lewis, this empowerment of the students is important. If he moves on, he wants the kids to continue to have success in their garden.
Launching the Urban Leadership Garden
Planning for the garden began several years ago when the Y Learning program had run out of snacks. Visiting a nearby grocery store, YMCA staff saw that these students were living in a food desert. The YMCA partnered with the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle to begin the garden. YMCA and community volunteers and staff from St. Augustine helped build 7 garden beds on a 9/11 day of service in 2013. Since then, the youth are in the garden year-round, making it happen.
Beyond what the students are learning about hard work and growing food, they are learning how powerful it is to do start something and see it through to the end. “They are also getting volunteer experience and learning that it’s not a chore but a privilege to volunteer,” Lewis said. Several of the students helped a neighbor in the community with raking and clearing space for him to start his own small garden.
“From seed to harvest, to laying down new soil, the students are involved. Our goal is that a core group of teens can become peer leaders for others,” Lewis said. “They’re working as a team and learning that you don’t’ have to do everything by yourself.”
According to Lewis, he contacts principals and counselors at local middle schools in Raleigh to invite students to this free Y Learning Program at St. Augustine’s University, which is the only Y Learning Program site that specifically engages middle school students on a college campus. Alexander Family YMCA picks up the students from 5 schools, drives them to the Y Learning program site at St. Augustine, where they provide snack and some field trips, and then drives them home, Monday-Thursday, Lewis said. Upward Bound at Camp High Hopes is held in the summer here as well, and campers in grades 7th thru 9th are also engaged in work in the Urban Leadership Garden.
Register for AHA’s Dig In on March 12 to learn all about starting and maintaining community, school and child care gardens, along with urban ag!