By Sarah Colson and Jeff Keeling
Science Hill High School senior Mallory Reed squats to level with 5-year-old Marlee Stevens and the pair inspect a small bell pepper plant growing from a raised bed. Stevens is entranced by the food growing from the rich earth right in the middle of Johnson City, outside Science Hill High School’s Alternative Learning Center, (ALC).
Reed, who caught the gardening bug while attending the ALC last spring, already has a lot of knowledge she can impart to Stevens and the 11 other girls visiting “Raven’s Garden” from Girls, Inc. She learned a great deal from Sheri Cooper and others at the ALC, who in turn are part of a broader effort to help young people throughout Washington County learn what they call “life literacy” and pass it on to their younger peers.
“I just started gardening and it carried over into my home life, too,” Reed said. “So now I’m growing zucchini and squash and all different kinds of herbs. Honestly it’s taught me a lot about responsibility. Keeping up a garden is such hard work, but also just loving something and nurturing it and being there for it — it’s almost a healing thing for your soul.”
That kind of melding of responsibility and nurture – what some call the seeds of “life literacy” – is precisely what attracted the Washington County Community Foundation (WCCF) to a collaborative project it has funded with a $100,000, two-year grant.
Under the guidance of several, almost entirely female-led organizations, children and youth from Stevens’s tender age to Reed’s age and beyond will become well-versed in nutrition, growing food, entrepreneurship and several other elements that fall under the “life literacy” umbrella. The group is calling the project “S.O.S.: Sowing Seeds of Success and Self-Sufficiency in Washington County for Neighborhood Nutrition and Food Literacy.”
The majority of funds will help pay teenagers such as Reed, “to do good work growing and serving in the community,” said Emily Bidgood of the Appalachian RC&D Council, one of the grant’s main collaborators. For several years, under Cooper’s tutelage, students from the ALC and Science Hill’s main campus have gardened outside the ALC and in other spots around the city. They’ve developed a business model that’s successfully penetrated numerous area restaurants with deliveries of fresh produce, all the while learning other skills they can apply at home – often where there is a limited grocery budget.
Monday, WCCF board members, the foundation’s CEO and others celebrated what those efforts have accomplished so far, and what they are poised to achieve in the near future.
“It’s certainly not just about planting things,” WCCF board member and Vice Chair Anne Darden said. “It’s about so many other things. It’s about job training. It’s about learning to work with others in a group situation; it’s learning from people in authority who are super competent and know what they’re doing. It’s about having those kinds of influences.”
This is the first year WCCF has awarded one grant of this size. For the past 20 years, WCCF has existed as the Harris Fund, named in honor of Eva Stanley Harris. The Harris Fund provided more than $525,000 over the course of its 20-year existence in numerous small grants awarded to area organizations.
While the fund’s mission remained the same, to serve at-risk families in Washington County, the Board of Advisors—Chair Preston McKee, Jean Conger, Darden, Mark McCalman, and Randy Wykoff—decided to change the way the money was awarded.
“We wanted the name to reflect our emphasis, which is Washington County and the community,” Darden said. “We really wanted the name to say who we are and what we do.”
After the name change, the board focused on the mission.
“We thought, ‘OK, What are the real big issues in our community?” Darden said. “What we really wanted to do is give more money for a greater impact to organizations that will work together so that it has a synergy and there is exponential effect. Instead of giving a couple thousand here and a few thousand there, to a bunch of different organizations, all of which are worthy, all of which deserve it, let’s find a few that will work together and bring in their resources.”
The next question was, “How much money are we talking about here?
“What kind of incentive do we need to get them to really work together?” Darden asked. “We decided $100,000. It’s a lot of dang money. But you know what? You can blow through that in no time and accomplish nothing.”
With the name changed, the mission narrowed and the grant amount determined, Darden said, the board started receiving applications. After reviewing those, WCCF wrote the three different organizations and asked them to re-apply, this time with one catch.
“Collaboration was a central tenet of this money,” Darden said. “These three, we know they have solid infrastructure. They have a history of success. They already have a lot of their programming in place and we know that they’ve had some cooperation with each other in the past.
“What if they came back with another proposal for us where they show us how all of this ties in with these life literacy skills? And they did it. They came up with the most beautiful grant proposal.”
Bidgood said the call to partner with two other organizations wasn’t much of a challenge at all.
“Luckily we all know and respect each other and enjoy working with each other and we’re all inspired by what all of the partners are doing,” Bidgood said. “So for us, the foundation allows us to take a next big step and really focus on being intentional and present with kids. Kids don’t just need a project that starts and then goes away.
“So growing food with kids and teaching them about healthy food literacy year-round, consistently, over a long period of time, we think not only changes kids’ lives, but their whole family dynamic. All it takes is for one child to come home and introduce one new food to their family to shake things up.”
Appalachian RC&D, Mountain Empire Literacy Outreach, and ETSU’s Quillen College of Medicine Library have partnered further with the Johnson City Police Department, the Carver Housing Authority, Build-It-Up East Tennessee, Science Hill’s ALC, Girls Inc., UT Extension, Frontier Health, One Acre Café, local farmers markets and others to secure hands-on experiences and even internships for the students that go through the S.O.S. program.
“(Science Hill’s) alternative center has had a garden for about 13 years,” Bidgood said, “but now it is thriving and almost every kid in the alternative center has something to do with growing, selling or eating out of that garden. … With help from lots of partners, at least once a week those kids are getting hands-on exposure to growing and eating good food and all the kind of related skills around that.”
The need for this kind of food literacy education, Darden said, is evident when talking with some of the kids.
“We’re so separated from the earth with big food stores and things,” she said. “People don’t really know where their food comes from. This has the potential to reach hundreds of children and families and to have a tremendously positive impact on the community.”
According to WCCF’s website, as of 2013, about 25,000 Washington Countians, including 7,000 children, lived in poverty.
“Because this is really comprehensive,” Darden said, “you’ll be able to put kids into the program at all levels. Once the kids learn how plants work—how you plant the seed, how you nurture the seed, how you grow the plant, how you harvest the plant, how you cook the food, the nutritional value of the food — they share that with their families. Then we have these food forests, these available gardens where they can go and get their own food. What we realized … is that a child can have a big impact on a family and sometimes you start, just like a seed, with a child, from the ground up.”
Reed wasn’t exactly where she wanted to be during her first few days at the ALC, but now the garden has become home to her. She said she’s grateful to the ALC, the S.O.S. project, and especially to Cooper, who Reed counts as a “second mom.”
“My transition to the alternative school was really hard for me,” Reed said. “(Cooper) was the one that really made me feel at home and kind of eased me into it. She’s been awesome she’s been such a blessing. I hope that other kids here learn that the garden is healing. It’s such a good lesson; it really is. If you’re having a bad day in class, come down here for a couple hours, go back in class and knock it out.”
Now, Reed sells her own produce to local restaurants to earn some extra cash during the summer.
“It’s something that’s so easy and it doesn’t cost anything,” she said. “It’s so cool to go to restaurants downtown with your friends knowing where everything came from, knowing that you grew it.”
“This is about life literacy skills,” East Tennessee Foundation CEO Mike McClamroch said Monday. “It’s not about tomatoes; it’s not about squash; it’s not about sweet potatoes. It’s about life skills for groups of young people just like this…At the end of the day the money that we’ve spent, we ask, has it changed lives? Has somebody’s life been made better? … This is one project that is already paying off.”
To learn more about WCCF, the East Tennessee Foundation, or the S.O.S. project, visit easttennesseefoundation.org/learn/region_we_serve/washington.aspx.