High schoolers Alexis Smith and Javert Boudreau both want to study communication in college. But this summer, the two students are working as farmers for the local agricultural nonprofit, Massachusetts Avenue Project.
The teenagers are part of a paid summer youth development program called “Growing Green,” through which nearly 40 disadvantaged students learn to grow produce at an urban farm on the West Side of Buffalo.
For many students, this is an opportunity to not only get their first paycheck, but to learn life skills like team building and problem solving, said farm manager Katie Pfohl. The teens work about 20 hours a week, and when they’re on the farm they do activities like watering, weeding and planting seedlings.
“My hope for them is to know they can do anything they want to do, and that they have the support to get there,” she said.
The program boasts a 99-percent rate of students graduating and going on to higher education, and this year’s group has many first-generation students from places like Puerto Rico, Kenya, Burma and South Sudan. Some are resettled refugees.
Last year’s students contributed to the production of over 18,000 pounds of organic produce. They also helped sell affordable, nutritious food to about 2,500 low-income households, Pfohl said.
For Smith, an upcoming Park School senior, MAP taught her about food, farming and nutrition. But it also got her started about thinking of starting a community garden in her neighborhood.
“Who knows? That could snowball into something more and help change their lifestyle,” she said of her proposition.
Smith said her dream would be to attend New York University to merge her interests in both technology and journalism.
Her colleague, Boudreau, has been participating in MAP for three years. The recent Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts graduate said the program has taught him about healthy eating and about the problems surrounding nutrition in food deserts.
“Stuff’s in walking distance, but it’s not stuff that will make you grow strong and fit,” he said. “It’s more like stuff that will debilitate you by age 50.”
Since starting the program, the 18-year-old said he has started composting and adding barley and coffee grounds to his home garden – ingredients that add nutrients to the soil.
Boudreau will attend Sarah Lawrence College next year and plans to major in creative writing.
Recently, the nonprofit reached its $2 million fundraising goal for their 11,000-square-foot, two-story farmhouse at 387 Massachusetts Ave. Groundbreaking began in May and is expected to be completed by February 2017.
The farmhouse will serve as the organization’s headquarters and hold offices, classrooms and cold storage for produce.
M&T Bank has donated $95,000 over the years to MAP. A couple of weeks ago, M&T Bank gave $15,000 just for the nonprofit’s school-year program, which teaches youth many of the same skills as the summer program. It also incorporates classes and workshops on topics that vary from financial planning to recognizing sexual harassment.