Making Change Happen at a Youth Farm on Comcast Cares Day.

Supa Fresh Farm started as a secret garden. My co-worker, Mia Barlett, and I found a patch of ground near a neighborhood school outside of Portland, Ore. We thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to start a garden with kids to teach them how to work in an environment where it was safe to fail? A place where teens could boost their confidence and learn valuable work and life skills at the same time?

That was 2009.

What started as four raised beds at the Durham Education Center Alternative High School has flourished – literally and figuratively. It’s now a learning space that includes three additional 1/4-acre farms. Working with another organization, we provide fresh food for free to about 250 nearby low-income families each month. And on April 21, we will participate in our eighth Comcast Cares Day, welcoming 250 Comcast employees along with their friends and families who will again help us achieve our mission.

We train kids for life beyond high school. Each year, about 50 youth participate in our program. They range in age from 15 to 24, all experiencing different challenges in their lives that make achieving their employment or educational goals more difficult.

While going to school, our students earn money working at the farm and learning about agriculture. Farming is complex. Here, we teach them about crop rotation, soil management and sustainable farming practices (we don’t use any pesticides). With that come lessons about food sourcing, healthy eating, and cooking nutritious meals on a budget. The kids then sell the produce they planted at farmers’ markets and through our Community Supported Agriculture program. They work as teams, learn how to be good employees, and master the basics of running a business. We’re very proud of our increased graduation rates and job retention rates. Most students stay with employers for at least a year after participating in our program.

The stories really speak for themselves. Take Shelly’s story for example. Shelly originally came to program because she and her family were homeless and had very few resources. The internship at the farm was her first job, her first time commuting to work alone on the bus, her first time learning to cook and her first time earning her own paycheck. Today, she is helping her own family pay bills.

And our success is thanks in part to supporters like Comcast NBCUniversal and its wonderful community volunteers. During Comcast Cares Day 2017, 200 volunteers showed up in force to help us plant 60 beds at Metzger Community Park, a dual-purpose school/park. This allowed us to jumpstart our spring planting project. But probably the most rewarding aspect of that day was seeing our teen leaders in action. They managed crews of Comcast volunteers throughout the implementation of the garden. I’ll never forget watching Kessley, a shy 17-year-old girl directing her crew of volunteers. It was so amazing to see her take charge and become comfortable as a leader. Our students need to learn hard work, yes, but they also need the opportunity to lead.

This year, we’re excited to host another group of Comcast volunteers to continue the project at Metzger. In this phase, our youth have been working with Metro and the City of Tigard parks department on the approval and design of a “placemaking” area of the park that the community can access. Placemaking is an approach to planning that connects people to spaces to promote health and wellness in a community. This student-designed area will provide additional shade, and more food – we already have a food pantry on site – and will have an edible landscape. This Comcast Cares Day will be the first day our youth install what they’ve designed.

Studies show that public parks have many positive impacts on a community. They’re typically less likely to be vandalized or covered with graffiti. And I’ve seen firsthand the relationships that have been built. Our youth are growing our garden, but they’re also growing lasting friendships and a sense of community they’ll take with them forever.

Thanks to Comcast NBCUniversal, we’ll be able to continue to create a safe, healthy space for people in our community to come together.

Katrin Dougherty is Program Director, Supa Fresh Youth Farm.