- Teenagers can earn a part-time salary and learn to kindergarten in a summer program in the West Side kindergarten
- The program is among the summer initiatives the city is funding to curb violent crime involving young people.
- This push comes amid gun violence that has claimed the lives of nine young people under 18 this year
- Teenagers will take care of crops, visit nearby gardens and hear from invited speakers on food topics
Robert Alexander Jr. put a small pile of Napa cabbage on his plate and looked at it with suspicion.
Made with fresh cilantro, carrots and onions harvested from the surrounding community garden, the dish was not spicy food 14-year-old Robert said he prefers. But the teen is nothing but adventurous – that’s why Robert, a Georgia resident, joined his Columbus cousin Tashaun McGowan, 14, to work at the Highland Youth Kindergarten in the West Side of the city while visited the family for the summer.
He quickly overcame his hesitation and took a small bite.
Robert chewed slowly, staring, while the rest of the teens waited for the decision. Not bad, he said, but Robert had the highest praise for the tofu baked that day by Charlie Richardson, a leading gardener in the youth garden, located around a block south of West Broad Road near the Hilltop neighborhood.
The group of teens are all part of the green summer kindergarten program that pays them a part-time salary while teaching them gardening skills. They had taken a lunch break after spending the morning of June 29 working in the sun to grow their tomatoes, mustard greens and other fresh produce.
“I don’t really get much out of the house, so I saw this as an opportunity to try something new,” said Robert, who lives in LaGrange, Georgia, as he waited for raw tofu for Richardson to cook.
His cousin Tashaun, who lives close to his grandmother, said he has long enjoyed gardening and saw this as a chance to expand his skills.
In 2009, neighborhood resident Peggy Murphy led efforts to turn a vacant lounge at the corner of Highland and Flower Streets into an active community garden with an emphasis on youth education. In its third summer, Green Teens is now one of several educational programs for young people offered at the Highland Youth Kindergarten.
Read more: Ginther unveils list of summer youth programs aimed at reducing violence in Columbus
The eight-week program is also among the summer initiatives the city of Columbus is funding this year in an effort to engage teens with constructive activities in hopes of curbing the rise in violent crime that officials say often involves young people.
In May, Mayor Andrew J. Ginther also unveiled a wave of summer camps and seasonal employment opportunities that are available to young people.
Read more: Columbus City Council considers funding more youth summer programs to try to stop violence
The push comes amid rampant violence – most of it involving guns – that has claimed the lives of at least 10 young people under the age of 18 so far this year.
Among them: Makenzi Ridley, 17, was killed when he was hit by gunfire on June 24 outside the Far East Community Center. And on May 22, 16-year-old Olivia Kurtz was killed and five other teenagers were injured in a shooting at Downtown Bicentennial Park during an unauthorized DJ party at the amphitheater there.
Read more: “The teenager who was killed in the shooting outside the Far East rec center was ‘everything,'” said the mother.
Ginther and other city officials have said they hope that by funding these initiatives, summer program organizers can expand their efforts and keep children from turning into delinquent and violent activities.
All told, the Green Teens program received $ 85,000 in funding for the summer – $ 20,000 from the city and another $ 65,000 from the Columbus Battelle-based research firm – said Shelly Casto, executive director of the Highland Youth Garden.
That money will allow Highland to pay teens $ 11 an hour for about 20 to 25 hours a week and buy gardening equipment, Casto said. Although the kindergarten is run primarily by a core group of about 60 volunteers, Highland recently added two part-time positions, and summer funding will also go towards paying their salaries.
Last summer, the coronavirus pandemic forced organizers to limit the program by bringing in fewer teenagers and giving up guest speakers and field trips that had become the highlights of the 2019 inaugural program.
This year, however, the program is back in effect with 10 teens having “an action-packed summer” ahead after starting June 22, Casto said.
Teenagers will spend the summer taking care of their produce, visiting nearby urban gardens and listening to guest speakers on topics of food sustainability and inequality. On Wednesday and Saturday, they will also assist in food distribution efforts for community residents.
Ultimately, the goal is for students to stay in the fall to help run the Highland education program that results from partnerships with nearby schools.
“It’s a neighborhood with insufficient resources, where parents are trying hard to put food on the table and that means there is less bandwidth to mentor their children,” Casto said. “Children in this neighborhood need adults who can support them and introduce them to people and places that can spark their interests.”
On that Tuesday in late June, the teenagers found relief from the scorching temperatures under the shade of a tent, where they chopped and seasoned the ingredients for the wound while Richardson cooked the tofu on a propane grill. The dish is far from the burgers and pizzas most teenagers can drink, and Richardson said that is exactly the issue.
“Cooking is a big part of what we do,” Richardson said. “I think it’s important that they learn the connection between their land and their food.”
Other teens may have had reservations at first about Napa buffet, but such food is nothing new to 15-year-old Natalia Campos, from Galloway. She said she maintains a vegan diet, and it was that environment-conscious mentality that inspired her to apply for the gardening program.
“I really like gardening and I love the environment,” Natalia said. “I thought that seemed like fun.”