BUILD + I can Fly

GCC is BUILDing a Brighter Future for At-Risk Kids in Chicago

By Tracie Bedell and Laurie Casey
From Green Community Connections eNews, July 2019

Two students gardening during our inaugural summer youth program in 2017.

Two students gardening during our inaugural summer youth program in 2017.

This summer, GCC’s “I Can Fly” mentoring and garden education program is returning, bigger and better than before in the Austin neighborhood. The program has a new name and new energy, thanks to new funding and a stronger partnership with Broader Urban Involvement & Leadership Development (BUILD), an organization that has been serving at-risk youth in Chicago’s most challenging neighborhoods for 50 years. Their mission is “...to engage at risk youth in schools and on the streets to help them realize their potential and contribute to our communities.”

The program, which combines the infrastructure of BUILD’s “Austin Grown” program with the enrichment components of GCC’s I Can Fly program, to form a holistic approach to urban farming and how lessons learned could be carried forward and taught to others. This summer’s program will include many of those elements, including activities such as:

●       Preparing, planting, caring for, and harvesting a farm as well as an urban garden

●       Cooking easy, healthful meals using harvested produce, which includes providing recipe cards and meals to take home to share with family members

●       Understanding how gardening and farming can improve their own health and emotional well-being as well as that of the community (and ultimately, the planet)

●       Discovering how lessons learned can fit into a student’s career path, even if they are not “farmers” per se

●       Participating in field trips to related area organizations, to reinforce lessons learned

We are especially excited because the 2019 Austin Grown program will include 10 students, three of whom are returning from the 2017 I Can Fly program! They’ll earn $8.25 an hour during the 20-hour workweek. The program culminates on August 22, when participants will present their “capstone” projects. Through these capstone project presentations, students will show how their understanding has come full-circle and positive ways they look to carry their learning forward to create change in their own community and beyond.

The curriculum will feature mentors from community organizations like Sugar Beet Schoolhouse, West Cook Wild Ones, Flybird Experience, The Field Museum, Chicago Style Vegan, and the Obama Foundation, as well as chefs from local restaurants, who will run workshops on cooking fresh food. Several field trips are planned as well.

Learn more about BUILD at Buildchicago.org.

To sponsor or donate to support this program, go here.


Participants paint new signs for the Harambee Garden.

Participants paint new signs for the Harambee Garden.

I Can Fly

By Laurie Casey
From Green Community Connections eNews, October 2017

During the summer of 2017, a youth leadership program gave a cohort of Chicago teens a safe and nurturing environment to learn lessons that enriched their lives, as well as the neighborhood where they lived. Teens in the “I Can Fly” Youth Leadership Program focused on the richness of the soil, not the economic poverty around them; the sweet fruits of labor, not the bitterness of systemic discrimination. They learned art — culinary and fine – as well as the art of negotiation, compromise and hard work. They learned to trust in their own leadership power as well as a higher power. The program was punctuated by a rich Speaker Series and four engaging field trips, but mainly the teens learned about these issues while building butterfly habitat, staking tomato plants, and pulling herbs and greens for alfresco lunches in the garden.

The program participants lived in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, which is rich in people and resources: gorgeous Columbus Park, strong community groups, an active religious community, affordable homes and apartments, and a vibrant African American culture.

But Austin is also plagued by gun violence and poverty. All of the teens who attended the leadership program have been touched by the trauma of losing people they know to gun violence.

“We always hear that bullets are flying in Austin. I wanted to focus on something other than bullets,” said Doris Davenport, program manager for I Can Fly.

The program was sponsored and supported by Green Community Connections (GCC), which is extremely grateful for a tremendous outpouring of community support, including a generous grant from a private donor. A number of smaller donors contributed healthy meals and tools like shovels, gardening gloves and water bottles.

I Can Fly youth used energy generated by the blender bike to make smoothies with Cheryl Munoz of Sugar Beet Schoolhouse.

I Can Fly youth use energy generated by the blender bike to make smoothies with Cheryl Munoz of Sugar Beet Schoolhouse.

I Can Fly youth use energy generated by the blender bike to make smoothies with Cheryl Munoz of Sugar Beet Schoolhouse.

“The groundswell of participation in the I Can Fly program – by participants, planners and donors – powerfully demonstrates how environmental sustainability can catalyze community sustainability,” said Ana Garcia Doyle, director of GCC’s One Earth Film Festival. “When people work together to engage in a deeper understanding of natural systems, they can build community and inspire change that promotes human health and economic well-being within families, organizations and the entire community.”

Six teens from Frederick Douglass Academy High School earned full stipends to attend the July program every day. Seventeen others from Becoming a Man (BAM) and St. Martin’s Episcopal Church joined them one day each week.

The program launched with a kickoff screening of “Can You Dig This?”, an audience favorite at One Earth Film Festival. The event included rich post-film discussion of the film’s portrayal of urban agriculture renaissance in Los Angeles’ Compton community and what that might look like in Austin.

The teens were graciously and lovingly supported and mentored by dozens of community and resource partners across the city and suburbs. Here are some highlights:

  • The teens used Harambee Garden, run by Root Riot Urban Garden Network, as their home base to learn gardening and other life lessons.

  • Cheryl Munoz and Aniki Shani of Sugar Beet Schoolhouse showed them how to sow seeds, water sprouts, and prepare healthy meals to enjoy the harvest.

  • Native plant expert Stephanie Walquist of West Cook Wild Ones helped teens plant native gardens and understand the needs of monarch butterflies and other pollinators.

  • Horticultural therapist from Chicago Botanic Garden, Vincent Gomez, beautifully guided the teens through therapeutic gardening activities.

  • Artist Tia Junes Etu helped the teens build stunning artwork that functions as garden signage.

  • Loretto Hospital offered space where the teens installed a double-sized native garden.

  • Former Governor Pat Quinn talked with the kids about leadership and proved to be one of their favorite speakers.

  • Michael Strautmanis of the Obama Foundation talked with kids about the power of taking a risk and has pledged to mentor the kids over this next year.

  • The cohort attended engaging field trips to Sweetwater Foundation, the Chicago Botanic Garden, and Sugar Beet Schoolhouse.

  • Community-building expert Susan Lucci coordinated an incredible culminating trip to see Van Jones’ We Rise Tour at the Chicago Theater.

In a large sense, the I Can Fly Leadership Program was a response to the constant stream of stereotypical images of unemployed “inner city” kids.

“I Can Fly” summer youth cohort with mentors in the Harambee Garden.

“I Can Fly” summer youth cohort with mentors in the Harambee Garden.

“There is always this negative talk about [teens living on the West side],” says Davenport, a professional journalist. “But what’s not acknowledged is that these kids start with a deficit. They lack knowledge about the way the world works. And when we make the rules public and help them understand, guess what? They do well.”

While the teens certainly gained a lot of confidence and real-world experience, the adults also benefited.

“These kids gave me hope,” says Davenport. “We have so many untapped, potential leaders. They just don’t have the opportunity. If given the opportunity, it’s amazing what can happen.”

What You Can Do: