Mo Banks and Raphael Ragland admit that urban farming wasn't really their idea of the ideal summer job.
"At first, it sounded crazy. I thought, 'Farming? Whoa,'" says Banks, 17, of his reaction to an idea to create salsa from city-grown vegetables. "After we learned about what was going to be happening, I thought I'd try it."
This summer, these teens are part of a group that will build a small enterprise from the ground up. They'll create Off the Block Salsa from concept to jar to pantry. Run through the Mentoring Positives program, this project is putting the kids, most from the multicultural Darbo-Worthington neighborhood, to work in an entirely new way and getting them experience that will last a lifetime.
It's just one of the kids' activities happening this summer at the Darbo Community Garden. Located on a 50-by-70-foot corner square of the Salvation Army Community Center lawn along Rosemary Avenue and Darbo Drive, the garden this year is teaching neighborhood kids of all ages how to dig in the dirt and grow food to feed themselves and their neighbors.
The idea for Off the Block Salsa sprouted when Madison community activist Joe Mingle met Will Green, founder and executive director of the Mentoring Positives program, which serves 40 at-risk youth from the Salvation Army Community Center.
"We were thinking about how we could find ways for the kids to be involved and get a summer job," Green explains. "We came up with the salsa idea and thought we could have the kids grow the food also."
This project is ideal, says Green, because it's far more than just another summer job. "It's more behind the scenes. That's the beauty of it, to have them sitting down and learn marketing, accounting, having a meeting and handing out tasks to see what needs to be done next."
Green admits that he thought the project was a long shot."
"Doing the agriculture stuff, I thought the boys would think, no way. But those boys thought about it, and the more they did, the more it made sense."
This spring, Mingle started meeting regularly with the salsa group to plan steps to bring the local salsa to market. One of the teens will serve as special events coordinator, another will become lead salesman and others on the team will handle marketing and communication, among other necessary tasks.
He believes Off the Block Salsa will hit all the right notes. "We all know that the urban food thing is really hot, and there are also issues of social justice and race that come into the conversation. It's a great coming together of all these things."
Green started the nonprofit Mentoring Positives organizations for at-risk youth in 2004 and runs the program with wife and assistant director Becky Green. The referral program targets elementary-age kids through teens with intervention services and mentoring help.
Some of the salsa vegetables will be raised by kids at the Darbo garden. Others will be donated. Although plans are still forming, the salsa is expected to be produced at the Salvation Army.
Other kids' activities in the garden this summer involve children participating in the Salvation Army's summer day camp program, as well as neighborhood kids who informally join gardeners as they do their work in the evenings.
"They just swarm us," says Larry Orr, a retired teacher and Darbo gardener. "We teach them how to use shovels and wheelbarrows. Then, they teach each other."
Sections of the garden are set aside for kids to grow rows of green beans, chard, turnips, zucchini and more. Some of the produce will go to the Salvation Army's food pantry.
The food pantry also benefits from community service by teens fulfilling hours for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. "I live in the neighborhood and see a lot of people working here and thought I'd give it a try, and I love it," says first-time gardener Chris Williams, 17, who has done 30 of 50 required community service hours at the garden. "It relieves a lot of stress, honestly."
It was Raphael Ragland who came up with the name Off the Block. "It's saying we come from a place where many people look at us and think we're not going to succeed. We're going to hit back by trying to do all that we can do to succeed."
Ragland moved from Chicago to Madison's Worthington Park neighborhood when he was 11. A student at Sun Prairie High School and member of the school's basketball team, he's been part of Mentoring Positives for six years. He sees the program, and opportunities like the salsa project, as a way to gain skills, improve his neighborhood and his life.
"Just last summer, I lost two of my closest friends," Ragland says. (The two teens were killed in a car crash on Milwaukee Street.) "Will took us off the street and into the gym."
Banks concurs. "We're not out getting into trouble. We owe that all to Will." Banks moved to Madison from Gary, Ind., when he was 7; he attends the Madison Schools' Work to Learn program, and expects to graduate next year.
For Ragland, who is looking forward to attending college after graduation next year, the garden and the salsa project is an open door. "This shows we can do a lot more than play sports and make music. We have all types of skills from farming to business."
The project is part of a trend nationwide toward urban agriculture. "The way we all connect is through food. White, black. We all eat," says Ragland.comments powered by Disqus
I have just returned from a whirlwind, five-day, four-city college tour with my son. You know those "101 Things to Know Before Visiting Disney World" guidebooks that experienced theme park travelers have written to help the uninitiated? I think I am now officially seasoned enough in information sessions and campus tours to give some serious thought to penning a similar "insiders guide" for the junior-year parent.
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It may be a bigger waste of breath than electricity to ask my kids to turn off the lights when they leave a room. If I've nagged them once, I've nagged them a thousand times. No, I've never noticed anything amiss with their fingers. But it appears they are physically incapable of flipping a switch to the "off" position.
I want to say thank you to the Board of Education for allowing Maia to return to class, unquestionably the place she belongs, as well as to thank them for adopting the new policies. But just as importantly, I also want to thank Maia and her family for their willingness to come forward with their story.
Some clever-clogs is playing Rachmaninoff on the piano at a party, and there it is again, that oft-heard adult lament of lost opportunity from a dejected onlooker: "I wish I could play. I wish my parents hadn't let me quit music lessons. I was just a kid -- how was I to know?" It's a reasonable complaint.
If you're checking out summer camps for your child, there are many issues -- some obvious, some less so -- to keep in mind. Here's a list to keep handy when you contact camps and camp directors, looking for the perfect spot for your kids to have fun, relax, and learn this summer.
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Lavish costumes, gorgeous sets, a full orchestra and a concession stand where nothing cost more than two bucks and you have a pitch perfect experience at the theater. Oh, and did I mention the ticket prices were just $10 dollars apiece? One could afford to take the whole family for a live theater experience for less than an evening at the Lego movie would cost including popcorn.
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It's Wednesday morning at Allis Elementary School on Madison's east side, and 16 third-graders -- 10 boys and six girls -- enter into an open-space classroom in typical wiggly, giggly style. Some are making goofy faces at one another, some are bouncing around hand-in-hand with friends, and others are just trying to stay out of the whirling-dervish path of activity.
Of the 789 poorly-composed, way-too-dark and out-of-focus photos currently living on my iPhone, I can count on two hands the number that show my kids and me together. And my husband is in probably no more than three or four of those.
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This past Monday, had winter's unrelenting weather allowed, Middleton Cross Plains School District teacher Andrew Harris would have once again been at the helm of a classroom. After nearly four years of fighting his dismissal from Glacier Creek Middle School for viewing and passing on sexually explicit material on district computers, MCPSD has been legally forced to reinstate Herris, this time as a seventh-grade science teacher at Kromrey Middle School.
In a study published last week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, academics have found that the 16 and Pregnant series may have played a significant role in the recent decrease in U.S. teen pregnancies.
In our house, sad but true, we've rarely spent the Martin Luther King holiday discussing race, social justice or the power of non-violent civil disobedience. Instead, the third Monday in January has historically been treated as just another day off school, just another long weekend. And it's been a missed opportunity.
It's not something that happens very often, but last Friday, as news of the impending arctic cold snap reached our house, my kids were rooting for Governor Scott Walker. They were rooting for him to take Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton's lead and cancel school throughout the state. They couldn't care less if he had the authority to do such a thing -- if he called off school, he'd be their hero.