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Garden gives hope to homeless youth

Corbin Hannah, right, harvests vegetables with Danny Rochon, left, and Joe Robinson.

PHOTO: Katie Pratt, UK Agricultural Communications
Louisville, Ky.

Gardens have long been associated with physical health benefits, and their benefits to emotional and mental health are becoming more well known. Nowhere is this truer than at the garden at the YMCA Safe Place in Louisville.

The garden, a partnership between the YMCA Safe Place and the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, is teaching the city’s homeless and unstably housed youth about responsibility and confidence, while they learn to grow and prepare food. The partnership began four years ago with funding through a Children, Youth and Families at Risk grant UK Family and Consumer Sciences Extension received from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“I’ve seen youth who have come into the shelter house in crisis mode in really rough situations,” said Corbin Hannah, YMCA Safe Place youth development coordinator. “One youth in particular came out to the garden with me when she got here. I could see her really opening up and smiling and enjoying her time in the garden.”

Hannah started in her current role in December 2016. She came to the YMCA with a passion for gardening, having studied in graduate school the impact a community garden can have on building an area’s social capital. The garden was already in place at the Y, but Hannah worked with Bethany Pratt, horticulture agent at the Jefferson County office of the UK Cooperative Extension Service, to expand it. Through many partnerships with businesses and organizations across the city, volunteers helped build two beds and replace two others this spring.

Hannah works at least weekly in the garden with youth and young adults who come to the YMCA Safe Place facilities. Anything harvested goes to the kitchen where the youth wash and store it, until staff can prepare it as a supplement to their daily meals. On a recent day, Hannah along with YMCA clients Joe Robinson and Danny Rochon harvested produce.

For Robinson, 19, gardening brings back fond childhood memories of his late grandmother, who was an avid gardener. Originally from Memphis, Robinson left Tennessee for a fresh start. He has been coming to the YMCA Safe Place in Louisville for the past three years.

“When it grows, it makes me feel good about myself, like I did something positive, I did something good,” Robinson said.

Before he participated in the YMCA garden, Danny Rochon, 23, had never gardened before. Like Robinson, he likes watching the vegetables grow.

The garden is just one project Hannah has worked on with Rochon since he came to YMCA Safe Place six months ago. He came to Louisville on a bus from New Orleans after a friend gave him a ticket, but when he got here, things went wrong. At the center, Hannah has taught him several life skills. He now has a job at White Castle.

“I’ve learned how to go about life and how life can treat us better as we treat ourselves better,” Rochon said.

One of the goals of the CYFAR grant is to equip youth with life skills that they need to reunite with their families and to develop into successful and productive citizens. Kelly Smith, Jefferson County 4-H youth development agent, has worked on the grant since the beginning.

“When we first started, we really looked at nutrition because the kids were having cold meals,” Smith said. “We partnered with Jenie Carter, who works in extension with Kentucky State University, and we taught these kids it was not that hard to make a warm meal. Now that we have the garden, the kids can not only grow it, but they can prepare it.”

As the partnership has progressed, Smith said successes like Rochon’s job are very visible among this population.

“We have a lot of kids who are learning those life skills and putting them to work,” Smith said. “Some young people are now becoming strong citizens within the city. They have a place to live. They have jobs. They know how to cook their food. Now, they know how to grow it.”

The garden is a good example of a successful partnership, as it has involved many individuals at the YMCA, within extension and across the city of Louisville.

“It’s been really good to see people in all of the extension programing areas work together to help homeless and unstably housed youth, an issue that we should all be passionate about,” said Hayley Pierce, Jefferson County extension associate for strategic communications. “We’re really trying to touch on every aspect of their lives, so they can become active, engaged citizens.”

Contact: 

Kelly Smith and Hayley Pierce, 502-569-2344; Corbin Hannah, 502-635-5233

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