Leadership Garden Grows Big Dreams

Teens are learning how to keep the slow food movement growing, one harvest at a time.

On the hottest of July days, East High School English teacher Meah King passes out pruning shears and gardening gloves to teens gathered around a dozen okra plants, the plump, fuzzy pods ripe for picking. “Put on some sleeves,” she warns, “or you’ll get scratched by the plants.” The students talk among themselves, noticing how the sweet peppers have grown, how some of the watermelons look fatter.  

King is one of the faculty leaders helping more than 100 youngsters from inner-city high schools get their hands dirty while learning valuable life skills at the Leadership Garden in Shelby Farms Park Conservancy.

“I always tell these kids, ‘Don’t give me excuses as to why you can’t be successful, I got the same roots,’ ” she says, flashing a proud smile. King herself is an East High alumna.

Located at the corner of Mullins Station and Farm Road, the Leadership Garden is designed to grow more than just vegetables; it’s about cultivating future leaders. Over the growing season, this patch of land has served as a natural laboratory for a select group of students from Manassas, Central, East, Northside, Whitehaven, and Westwood High Schools. As they’ve planted seeds and spread fertilizer, they’ve learned not only about biology and nutrition, but life lessons too, including that steady work yields results.  Now, after weeks of labor, they gather the produce which will be biked down the Greenline and sold at the Urban Farms Market at Tillman and Broad. Resting at a picnic table under a shade tree, they taste the sweet juice of watermelon grown by their own hands.    

Planting the seeds

With supplies funded by a $30,000 grant from Baptist Health Care, the Leadership Garden offers at-risk teens the opportunity to literally reap what they sow.  But the work isn’t easy. For a generation used to seeing meals come from drive-through windows and microwave ovens, growing food in the garden is a new concept.

“They come out here looking for the fried okra tree,” Matt Farr says with a wink, manager of education and outreach for Shelby Farms Park Conservancy. “But it’s not their fault. They’ve never had the chance to see where food really comes from.”

By mid-July, not only can these teens identify plants they are growing, but the hope is that they’ll take what they’ve learned and build gardens in their own neighborhoods. The intent of the program is to train teens as a resource pool of knowledgeable, responsible people to run urban gardens and farmers’ markets in the future. Farr teaches them to plant marigolds as a natural pesticide, to make compost from fallen leaves and scraps, and to prune flowering stems from basil so the leaves will retain more savory oil. They even build worm farms and use the “worm tea” to create plumper produce.

Shelby Farms has a vision to be a twenty-first century park that defines and shapes greater Memphis. By connecting kids to the land via gardening, this program speaks directly to the Farms’ core values: youth development, healthy families, and environmental stewardship.

Tending the crops

The teens who work here several times a week are all part of the Peer Power Foundation. They were recommended by school faculty members to participate in the program, where young people learn from one another. High school students are paired with college mentors to do activities that range from ACT prep to confidence building to growing food together.

“Teaching is not telling. It’s easier to learn biology and botany hands-on than from a five-pound book,” says Bill Sehner, director of the Peer Power Foundation. As the Greenline became a physical connector between Shelby Farms and Memphis, he and Farr joined forces to ignite the candle of creativity for urban kids who might not have experienced farming or nature.  

Founded in November 2004 by Charlie McVean, the Peer Power Foundation fosters the dreams of young people by helping them participate in the free enterprise process. The key is peer mentoring, with younger teens learning how to succeed from older peers. There are 800 high school freshmen and sophomores (scholars) who are mentored by 90 juniors and seniors (tutors), who learn from 62 college students (mentors). The older high school and college students go through an application and interview process, and are then hired at an hourly wage. Many mentors began as scholars themselves. It seems to be working. The Peer Power Foundation has a 96 percent college scholarship rate.

Jonathan Moffett, a University of Memphis civil engineering major, began as a Peer Power scholar during his freshman year of high school. He likes paying it forward and getting to know younger teens as they work side-by-side at the Leadership Garden. “It makes you feel great, like you’re surviving,” he says.

Gathering the harvest

Crops are grown for more than just this year’s bounty. With heirloom vegetables, seeds are saved and planted for next year. The hope is that after graduation, these students will attend area colleges, or return to Memphis after completing their education to become the city’s future leaders. From Meah King, who leads seasoned mentors, to the new group of high school freshmen entering Peer Power, Leadership Garden is part of a program working to turn out productive teens who will enhance Memphis in the years to come.

“We are the biggest family I know,” says Michelle Neal, a University of Memphis health major. She takes off her floppy hat, sets down her bucket of okra, and pushes up her sleeves. “And we just keep growing.”  

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