Teen program plants seeds for ‘golden’ future

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An enthusiastic group of seven teenagers from the COA Goldin Center worked hard this summer tending a garden, making treats such as mint tea, green tomato salsa and homemade tortilla chips, and selling them at the weekly Skyline Music concert in Kadish Park.

That was in addition to attending workshops on nutrition, marketing, product placement and customer service, as well as field trips to the Public Market and the Coca Cola plant. And having fun.

The program, which started in summer 2011, was the brainchild of Angela Pien, youth development program administrator at COA Goldin Center, 2320 W. Burleigh.  The project received an initial $800 “mini-grant” from the Milwaukee Childhood Obesity Prevention Project, a coalition of community centers affiliated with United Neighborhood Centers of Milwaukee (UNCOM).

“We have a lot of teens who don’t have summer jobs and want them. Then we have these raised beds at Goldin,” Pien explained. Her idea was to teach participants about nutrition and entrepreneurship by growing produce, cooking with the fresh ingredients and selling products at the weekly Skyline Music series, sponsored by COA Youth & Family Centers.

When a representative of the Wisconsin Beverage Association approached David Nelson, assistant professor at the college’s Department of Family and Community Medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin about funding a project to improve community health, Pien’s pilot project came up.

A $30,000 grant from the association allowed the expansion of the program, now called Grow Your Future, to four other agencies: Silver Spring Neighborhood Center, Neighborhood House of Milwaukee, Journey House and Milwaukee Christian Center.

“The project came together because of a lot of people,” said Nelson, who is also director of the Milwaukee Childhood Obesity Prevention Project.

Bottlers Coke, Pepsi, &-Up, Dr. Pepper and Snapple provided volunteers who worked with a particular center.

Michele Leininger, the project coordinator at Medical College of Wisconsin, is enthusiastic about the changes that she’s seen in the 38 participants. “Kids who started very quiet opened up and are very vocal now. When we brought all the groups together it was awesome.”

Nelson is particularly pleased that the infrastructure for community gardening is now in place at the partner community centers. Volunteers from the participating organizations put in raised vegetable gardens at three of the centers. “Everyone pitched in — the Medical College, bottlers and community centers,” he said.

Keyshaw Boyd, who was involved in Goldin Gardeners for the past two years, joined the program because he thought it would help him in the future. “I think this is a good opportunity to gain skills in entrepreneurship,” said Boyd.

The Goldin Gardeners earned an average of $115 per week, which the participants shared, Pien said. Each teen also received a $10 gift card each week for attending.

The program also provided an opportunity to build community and try different foods. The Goldin Gardeners gathered each week for a “family dinner” at the COA Riverwest Center before selling their homemade snacks at the concert.

“I often heard them talking to one another about the family dinners and have even used this as a selling point to get other youth involved in the gardening program,” Pien said.

“During these family dinners they shared stories about their families, friends, the violence they witness all too often and how they can’t wait to drive. It’s truly a family atmosphere and there is a great sense of community,” she added.

Pien noted that during the second family dinner she brought healthy snacks. “I was shocked and saddened to find out none of them had ever had a raspberry,” she said. In subsequent weeks, she brought a fruit or veggie that the teens may not have tried before.

In an email thanking volunteers, Pien wrote: “I can’t tell you how proud I am of our seven gardeners everyday. They continuously amaze and inspire me. I know many of the gardeners’ home life situations, and the fact that they continue to get up every day and make positive choices for themselves is (nothing) short of a miracle. They are my heroes.”

The organizational partners hope that Growing Your Future can continue to expand. “We hope this is just a pilot for more partnerships,” said Wisconsin Beverage Association Executive Secretary Kelly McDowell.

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