Seattle Youth Garden Works: Connecting Homeless and Under-served Youth to a Healthier Future
Location: Seattle, Washington
Contact: Janice Dilworth; 206.632.0352; firstname.lastname@example.org
Having a job can sometimes mean much more than just earning money or gaining experience - the right type of employment can change the way you understand your community, and how your community understands you. Through Seattle Youth Garden Works, youth go from asking pedestrians for change to making change from the sale of fresh produce they grow, harvest, and market at their Garden Works farm stand.
Youth crew member
working at the farm stand
In the mid 1990s, social worker Margaret Hauptman decided she wanted to do something to help the homeless youth she saw every day on her way to work in the University District. The youth would often ask for handouts, and she wanted to empower them and give them tools they could use to help change their lives. In 1995 she created a small landscaping project to employ these youth and give them the job training they would need to get future employment. Today, this project is Seattle Youth Garden Works, which has retained Margaret's original concept of job training and youth involvement, but has expanded to include two successful garden to market programs. Many of the youth that were once so disenfranchised are now seen as an important part of the community, and have moved on to find jobs in greater Seattle. The youth farm markets are valued by their neighbors and local communities as well -says Seattle Youth Garden Works executive director Janice Dilworth: "People feel very strongly about supporting the markets...it is good for the neighborhood to see the youth this way, [off the streets] in a positive role." The group has aided more than 500 youth since its inception, and program managers plan to continue to expand the project in the future.
Giving Youth a Second Chance
Community volunteer working
in the garden
Youth come to Seattle Youth Garden Works for a variety of reasons, whether to gain experience in horticulture and food production, to learn small business management, or to simply add something consistent and reliable to their lives. Whatever their motivation or backgrounds, the youth are all between the ages of 14 and 21, and have all faced challenges such as homelessness, joblessness, or poverty. Many of them come to Seattle Youth Garden Works because they know someone who has benefited from it - "a lot of people learn about us through word-of-mouth, either from a family member, friend, or mentor," says director Janice Dilworth, "we have had a few siblings move through the program."
The group serves about 45 to 55 youth per year, and youth that are accepted into the market program commit themselves to a 12-week period, with an average of 12-15 hours of work per week. They spend 3/4 of their time working in the garden or market stand, and 1/4 of their time in educational workshops. The educational component means that youth who work over the summers are able to earn school science credits, but participants also go on field trips. Youth are paid minimum wage for the hours they work, but youth that have worked more than 60 hours are eligible to earn market shares from farm stand profits. Each year, 3 to 4 youth who complete the 12-week program period are then promoted to the position of lead youth gardener, where they take on additional management and leadership responsibilities.
Organizing 45 youth a year is demanding, and Seattle Youth Garden Works relies on 4 full time staff as well as 5 AmeriCorps staff to help keep the program running smoothly. They also receive support from community members, who assist the group by donating their time and money to the project. The group has a diverse12-member advisory board, which includes community members with backgrounds in business, finance, non-profit development, law, education, and events management.
Youth crew working at the
In the areas where the group works, which include the University District and the South Park District, neighbors have come to view the project as integral to the overall fabric of the community. In 2006, when Seattle Youth Garden Works chose not to sell at the University District Farmers Market, community members were so upset that they requested that Seattle Youth Garden Works return for the 2007 season. "They felt very invested in our program and really wanted us to be at this market," says Dilworth, "these were people who would buy something from the stand every week." The community shows their support by doing more just purchasing heads of lettuce or bunches of carrots, however. Although the group relies primarily on the funding they receive from large institutions, many community members also support the group through cash donations as well as significant volunteer time.
Keeping it Growing
Enjoying produce in the garden
The local support of the program and the enthusiasm of the youth and staff have helped keep Seattle Youth Garden works in existence for over a decade, but they still face the types of challenges that plague many non-profit organizations. Funding is a continuous challenge, and current leadership is looking for ways to ensure the future stability of the program. Each group of youth who enter and graduate from the program are surveyed on their experience of the program, and the questions are designed to determine if the participants improved their science knowledge, business and job skills, or their housing and education. This type of monitoring provides the group with valuable statistics that help "make the case" for why the program should be continued. In 2006, for example, 86% percent of graduates improved their job skills, housing and education, 83% improved their science knowledge, and 76% improved their business skills.
Preparing produce for sale
In the future, the group wants to improve their tracking of program graduates in order to see how many gain employment, and what types of jobs the youth are able to secure. Current director Janice Dilworth would like to streamline this process by partnering with other organizations that are also providing job training for homeless youth. "If we worked together to develop a common methodology for tracking progress," says Dilworth, "we could prove the validity of our programs, and show how this type of education really does make a difference."