Growing gardeners: UROC helps kids develop green thumb

Gardening builds skills that go far beyond growing food. For more than 30 years, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum has been teaming up with other organizations to offer garden-based outreach programs to children ages 5 to 18. Over time, programming has grown from the Children’s Garden in Residence, a seven-week, hands-on experience that combines science and gardening to a variety of garden-based summer work programs that help teens build leadership, communication and entrepreneurial skills.

Working side-by-side with kids through the Children’s Garden in Residence, instructors at sites around the Twin Cities teach things like how to sow seeds, water, weed, harvest and just stand back and marvel at how enjoyable it can be to grow your own food and flowers. The program has been so successful that youth who age out of the children’s classes often choose to move into the Urban Garden Program’s youth employment experience, Growing Good-Minnesota.

Offered in partnership with organizations that serve youth in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Growing Good-Minnesota helps teens build employment, communication and entrepreneurial skills. Working with an adult facilitator, youth work together to tackle a challenge through either the Community Youth Leaders or CityFresh Youth Entrepreneurs programs.

CityFresh Veggies builds on everything the teens have already learned in the garden, says Randy Gage, explaining that the program gives six teenagers the opportunity to work with a facilitator to grow and sell specialty produce to local restaurant chefs. Community Youth Leaders are challenged to do a garden-based project that addresses a community health and wellness issue.

Gage, the arboretum’s youth education manger, is part of the leadership team that oversees the Urban Garden Program. An affiliated program of the University of Minnesota Robert J. Jones Urban Engagement and Outreach Center (UROC), the initiative focuses on connecting the arboretum’s gardening programs with children and youth in intercity communities.

“UROC has made a big difference for us,” Gage continues. “Before establishing our outreach home office here, we didn’t have a home base in the community. Now we can host community meetings, hold events like our summer youth celebration and be an active partner in the community.

UROC also serves as a host site for the Pop-up Garden team. Teens working on the teams are challenged to engage the community in health and wellness topics through installing and maintaining themed pop-up gardens at Minneapolis non-profit organizations every summer. The pop up garden at UROC allows teens to engage with community leaders and residents while contributing to the UROC’s mission. It’s a good way to build community while creating a space where people can learn about nutrition and gardening, says Karen DePratto, the arboretum’s youth development coordinator. And youth get the chance to learn a wide range of skills.

“Gardening is the focus, but youth development is really at the core of our programs,” Gage says. “We are striving to create opportunities for youth to develop skills through real-world work that is rooted in the community, and our UROC office helps provide access to the people, space and community needed to build effective and dynamic experiences for young people.”