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How Urbanstead Nurtures Career Skills Through Urban Agriculture

April 8, 2015 Category: Results

Lisa Gaidanowicz became a teacher by accident.

She was working as an IT administrator for a GED program, where she was creating classes focused on technology career training. However, after the program lost a grant, Gaidanowicz was forced to step up and teach.

“I’d never taught before, never worked with young people before,” she said. “And I fell in love, and realized that this is what I wanted to do.”

What was supposed to be a six-month stay teaching at that GED program turned into four years. Gaidanowicz, who does not have a college degree, could not find another job.

“A big part of that was my lack of a degree, even though I’m in my thirties and have been working for most of my life,” she said. Gaidanowicz, who grew up in rural New England, decided to continue educating kids through urban agriculture.

The intent was to embrace kids who are struggling to get their GEDs and give them an alternative to pursuing higher education. Gaidanowicz quickly realized urban agriculture was a medium for teaching leadership and career building — as well as getting more food access and options to the community. But first, she needed some land.

Gaidanowicz was in a coffeeshop and overheard a conversation about someone having space that needed to be worked. The person was Penny Giles, executive director of Francisville Neighborhood Development Corporation. It wasn’t long before FNDC became the fiscal sponsor of the newborn Urbanstead, as well as its youth urban agriculture program, Youth Plots.

With Youth Plots, Gaidanowicz brings youth groups into the Francisville farm and teaches them how to start planting, how to identify certain plants, that it’s safe to actually eat food off the vine and, most importantly, how you need to get your hands dirty.

Gaidanowicz remembers how one 10-year-old she worked with on the farm last summer wouldn’t touch carrots when they were pulled. “That wasn’t a carrot for her because a carrot came from the grocery store,” Gaidanowicz said.

By the end of the summer, the girl was pulling carrots out of the ground and eating them.

“Her mom told me the other day that when they needed food one day, [the girl] said ‘I know where to get a carrot!’” Gaidanowicz said. “She ran over [to the farm], pulled some carrots out and brought them home.”

From our Partners

Gaidanowicz said support from the community has been crucial to Urbanstead’s development.

“The more we combine resources and work together will make for stronger programming,” she said. In the spirit of community collaboration, Urbanstead will soon be working with Cloud 9 Rooftop Farm to create a career program revolving around urban agriculture.

According to Gaidanowicz, the career program will include partnering with multiple businesses throughout the city that would be willing to hire from the graduate pool of interns Urbanstead and Cloud 9 Rooftop Farm take on.

“We want to incorporate a garden-building edible landscape program so that the interns are actually building edible gardens for people throughout the city,” Gaidanowicz said. “[The gardens] would be ground-roofed and aquaponics based, and we’d provide an education on how to do that.”

Through that prospective program, youth would not only learn how to build gardens and aquaponics units, but they’d obtain job skill knowledge and experience. The interns would ideally be pipelined into other jobs through the partnerships with local businesses.

“We want to provide job experience that would allow people to get hired outside of our program in a number of different jobs, not just urban ag,” Gaidanowicz said. In the meantime, Gaidanowicz and Urbanstead are preparing for summer programming with Youth Plots.

The crops being grown now and throughout the summer will be available beginning in May at Urbanstead’s farm stand on 19th and Fairmount. All proceeds raised from the stand directly back into Urbanstead programming.

“We all eat food, regardless of our background, upbringing, anything,” Gaidanowicz said. “How can we work together to introduce more healthy food options to our city?”

Image via Urbanstead

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