Seattle Youth Garden Works, a program of Seattle Tilth, seasonally hires about a dozen homeless or underserved youths, teaching them to grow and sell produce and preparing them for other jobs and opportunities.
On a plot of land behind University of Washington’s botanical garden, Robert Servine leads a group of youths and volunteers in evenly spreading crop seed across the freshly tilled field.
In an adjacent patch, another group tussles with obstinate weeds.
The crew of youths working to till, weed, water, monitor and harvest rows of vegetables ranging from arugula to radishes are employed by Seattle Youth Garden Works, which Servine directs.
The seasonal program hires 15 homeless youths ages 16 to 21 to help farm the land. But its aim is to grow more than just vegetables, steering the kids into workshops that range from résumé writing and entrepreneurship to knowing their rights when interacting with police.
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“Kids don’t have a lot of work experience, and we take people who have barriers to employment,” Servine said. “We’re giving them work experience they can put on their résumé, and they’re learning soft job skills and leadership skills to give them a bit more of an advantage.”
Autumn Rainey, 18, is finishing her fifth session of Garden Works. With a baseball cap dipped low over her eyes, Rainey eagerly volunteers to do whatever needs to get done — from weeding to harvesting tomatoes. The program has helped her get a case manager to find housing; encouraged her to stay in high school; and worked around her school hours to keep her employed.
A senior at Nova Alternative High School, Rainey said, “I’ve had horrible attendance and never did my homework before, but this year I’m doing it right. I think this job and earning a consistent paycheck every week teaches you some skills. You do all your work and you get that gratification at the end. It’s really cool.”
“It’s always interesting when you get to see the youth go from a bunch of individuals when they first show up to coalescing as a team,” said Juniper Rogneby, the program’s coordinator. “They show up because they often need the paycheck and work experience, but they also show up for each other.”
Program staffers work one on one with the young people to connect them to services, housing or other jobs — and encourage them to stay in school.
“I was a troubled youth in a way,” Servine said. “I came from a bad neighborhood and never tried in school, because I never knew it was a possibility.” Now he likes working with young people in similar situations, he said, “to show them what’s available to them so they don’t miss that opportunity.”
While the program has success stories, Servine says it is unable to have the impact it would like because its sessions are short and its capacity limited. The program is part of the local nonprofit organization Seattle Tilth.
“Working with teenagers is like planting seeds,” Servine said. “You never know what’s going to take” or how long it may take the seeds to germinate.