By Meredith Melland
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
Over the past three summers, Milwaukee teens have revitalized a South Side community garden as part of Growing Connections, a paid summer internship and community-building program.
The community garden, on South 5th and West Becher streets, buzzed with activity as visitors and bees alike explored its flowers and plants during a harvest and garden reveal event on Sept. 30.
“I learned that even a little area can make a difference in our community,” said Jackie Ramirez, a sophomore at St. Augustine Preparatory Academy who has participated in Growing Connections for the past two years.
Extension Milwaukee County, a division of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, partners with the Milwaukee Christian Center on the internship program.
Ten students worked on the garden this summer with the help of program mentors, growing a colorful bounty of fruits, vegetables and flowers in planting beds that community members could pick from at the recent event.
Laying the groundwork
After their initial plans changed because of COVID-19, program leaders in 2021 looked for a community garden near the Kosciuszko Community Center at 2201 S. 7th St., where Milwaukee Christian Center hosts youth programming.
Growing Connections started working that spring on the 5th Street garden at the intersection of Historic Mitchell Street and Lincoln Village.
“The first year was a lot of like cleaning up and picking up trash, needles, tires and stuff like that,” said Lue Yang, youth opportunities manager at Milwaukee Christian Center.
By the end of the second summer, the Growing Connections interns had mulched the ground to improve growing conditions, built garden beds and started growing plants.
This fall’s harvest event was the first time the students have shown the garden to the community.
“This is also the first summer where we really like dug in, flowers started growing, our fruits and vegetables are growing,” Yang said.
Produce grown include peppers, tomatoes, strawberries, tomatillos, garlic, squash, chard, peas and other plants.
Katie Boland, an Extension Milwaukee County garden educator who works with Growing Connections, said some of the plants, like broom corn, sunflowers, squash and marigolds, were chosen to pay respect to Native Americans who lived on the land.
Developing youth leaders
Growing Connections empowers youths from the ages of 14 to 18 to become leaders by engaging them in community service, Yang said.
Students spend two days a week in the summer gardening and learning about food production at the garden and Extension’s Kohl Farm, 8400 W. County Line Road.
On the other days, they participate in workshops on political education, social justice, placemaking and youth leadership.
This year, Growing Connections also worked with students from Escuela Verde, a public charter high school at 3628 W. Pierce St.
One of the program’s best highlights for Ramirez is “growing close bonds with the people that work here.”
The teens also get to explore different career paths, some related to food. This summer, Milwaukee Christian Center’s program participants visited Braise, a restaurant and culinary school at 1101 S. 2nd St., in Walker’s Point.
“We also got to cook vegetables that we made here. We brought it to the restaurant. They let us use their entire kitchen,” Yang said.
Growing Connections leaders hope that community members will be able to rent out beds in the 5th Street garden and use it on a regular basis in the future, as Hmong farmers in the area have done in the past, said Yang.
In the meantime, Yang, Boland and Leslie Quevedo, Extension Milwaukee County’s Positive Youth Development educator, will continue to maintain the garden and grow seeds to prepare for the next summer program.
For more information
For more information about Growing Connections, contact Lue Yang at email@example.com or Leslie Quevedo at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meredith Melland is the neighborhoods reporter for the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service and a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. Report for America plays no role in editorial decisions in the NNS newsroom.