April 28, 2005

Homeless youths get a taste of gardening

  • Seattle Youth Garden Works' education and employment program gives kids job skills and self respect.
    Seattle Youth Garden Works

    Northwest Flower and Garden Show
    Photo courtesy Seattle Youth Garden Works
    Nick “Sqrl” Plesha, left, Sam O’Brien, middle, and Annika McIntosh show off their award-winning display garden at the 2005 Northwest Flower and Garden Show.

    Nick "Sqrl" Plesha dropped out of high school on his 16th birthday and ended up homeless after his mom walked out on him. He knew he needed to take care of himself, find a job and get some direction in his life.

    Plesha became one of the many young people referred to the nonprofit Seattle Youth Garden Works program by drop-in centers, social workers and other homeless youths.

    The mission of Seattle Youth Garden Works is to empower homeless and under-served youths through garden-based education and employment. This year, the organization is celebrating its 10th anniversary of serving those aged 14-22 who face challenges to being adequately employed.

    The program was a great fit for Plesha, allowing him to reconnect with a love of nature he had early in life.

    "I doubt very much that I could've found something more enjoyable. At Seattle Youth Garden Works, they give you the opportunity to experience the magic of creating something," Plesha said.

    Plesha was one of 61 youths in the program last year. Youths graduate from the 3-month garden-based education and employment program with:

    • Personal empowerment. Building on their strengths and innate value, youths improve their self esteem, take leadership, receive validation, heal, connect with and give back to their communities, and envision a positive, hopeful future.

    • Employment skills. Youths gain essential skills including timeliness, conflict management, working with a supervisor, working on a team, resume writing and interviewing, and decision-making.

    • Business skills. Entrepreneurship, retail and wholesale marketing, pricing, competition, record keeping and business analysis are all part of the curriculum.

    • Science education. Youths learn and participate in the planting, tending and harvesting of organic produce; soil chemistry; vermiculture and environmental responsibility.

    • Responsibility and accountability. Through the gardening and marketing process, youths receive positive validation in growing a high-quality, marketable product.

    Seattle Youth Garden Works provides job training in an innovative, entrepreneurial market gardening program that builds on individual strengths. Participants grow organic produce from seed to fruit and sell the produce at local farmers' markets and through a community supported agriculture program. The two program sites are located in Seattle's University District and South Park neighborhoods. Youths work 10 to 20 hours weekly after school, earning a wage and a share of the sales profits.

    Through participation in the program, Plesha learned that he has a lot to contribute to his community — and can be "useful" as he put it. He has also completed his GED and now shares an apartment with another program participant in the University District.

    After graduating from the program last year, Plesha was offered a one-year lead youth gardener paid internship. In his new position, he has become a role model for incoming program participants. He also acts as a leader in the year-old Alumni Council, a group of former participants who help guide the program's future.

    How to help
    Produce grown by Seattle Youth Garden Works participants can be bought at the University District and Columbia City markets starting in May. To learn more about the program visit

    Plesha initially didn't see the big picture at the program and how his work would ultimately contribute. But, thanks in part to his great work, Seattle Youth Garden Works was awarded the prestigious Founder's Cup (best in show), the American Horticulture Society Environmental Award and the Gold Level Award at the 2005 Northwest Flower and Garden Show.

    Plesha took on the huge task of putting together the display garden — taking responsibility for starting all of the vegetables up to three months in advance and forcing all of the bulbs. He was pretty surprised that he had been part of an effort that edged out some big competition.

    This spring, Plesha is working at the University Garden site installing a new irrigation system, beautifying garden paths with donated perennials and spreading organic fertilizer. He'll also be working with the Seattle Youth Garden Works team developing his business skills by heading up record keeping of garden sales, profits and inventory.

    Other youths are working on developing new value-added products for sale at the markets this year such as pesto made from garden produce.

    Plesha said he believes that he wouldn't have learned or grown so quickly in any other job. "We're fortunate to have programs like Seattle Youth Garden Works, which offers youth opportunities for growth and helps them help themselves. I hope that people will continue to support the program as much as they can," he said.

    Plesha plans to attend college and study landscape design and horticulture after he completes his internship.

    Megan Davis is development manager at Seattle Youth Garden Works.

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