In March of 2016 I became the Lead Garden Educator for the WeGrow Garden at Northwest Youth Services, through their vocational training program. Northwest Youth Services (NWYS) is another Bellingham, Washington-based nonprofit that provides resources to homeless and previously homeless youth, in order to assist them on their way towards housing and financial stability. NWYS staff encouraged Growing Alliances to pursue our mission, despite the overlap, because Bellingham needs more resources for disadvantaged youth.

The WeGrow Program employs at most 5 youth in a minimum of a 3-month vocational training program to teach farm skills, botany, biology, teamwork with their peers and volunteers, accounting skills, and other vital job skills. For the three months before starting our market stand, we delegated about 30 minutes of each 4-hour workday for lessons in biology so that the youth would better understand the processes happening in the garden.

Up until this growing season (2017), WeGrow had a .25-acre farm next to the NWYS office on State St, where we produced hundreds of pounds of produce and popped up a market stand during the summer months. Despite the scarce income we made through the market stand, it gave the youth the opportunity to work on customer service, accounting, and personal and product presentation. We also surveyed local businesses for which would be interested in a weekly produce box, during which we continued a relationship with the delicious Leaf & Ladle. What wasn’t sold was donated to the food bank. For the 2017 season, WeGrow will be breaking ground on a new site, across from the Bellingham Food Bank.

I learned a lot during those 7 months about effective garden education and how to modify my lesson delivery to best communicate with each youth. I plan on using much of what I learned to create a happy, healthy, and educational work environment for the youth of Growing Alliances. The best part of my job was seeing the youth be excited and proud of their work, and to watch the progression of their work and garden skills. These youth are incredible and I am honored to know each one of them.

Five out of the six youth we employed over the season moved on from WeGrow to more full-time employment – one of the program’s major goals. Similar to WeGrow, Growing Alliances will have the goal of providing the youth we work with the skills and connections needed to give them more long-term employment.

This experience demonstrated how much need there is for vocational training programs for youth with unusually high obstacles to employment. Less than half (48%) of youth who have recently transitioned out of foster care are employed whatsoever and those who are make less than $10,000 a year on average. Reliable income is a basic need for everyone and it is a goal of Growing Alliances, Northwest Youth Services and many other amazing nonprofits and individuals to give a hand to those who need one.

One of the main goals this winter of Growing Alliances is the development of several program plans so that we may survey our targeted population on which would be most appealing. It is possible that Growing Alliances will start another urban farm in Bellingham, based on demand, but we have several other ideas that are more popular amongst our Board Members. We shall see where our surveys bring us; stay tuned for updates in the coming months!

For more information about Northwest Youth Services and their programs, please check out their website: https://www.nwys.org/vocational-opportunities/

Many thanks,

Kali Crow-Liester