Erin Williams, a college student at Milwaukee School of Engineering, is in her fifth summer working at the Green Youth Farm in Lake County. Serving three years as a student and now an intern, she says what she learned on the farm has assisted her in her electrical engineering studies.
"Working here has helped my thought process for coding. It's taught me a new way of thinking about things," said the 21-year-old student who lives with her mom in Waukegan.
Williams now serves as a role model for about 20 area high school students working to plan, sow, tend and harvest a 1.25-acre sustainable farm nestled within Greenbelt Forest Preserve in North Chicago.
The program is a partnership between the Lake County Forest Preserves, its charitable partner the Preservation Foundation, and the Chicago Botanic Garden. It was founded in 2003 in Lake County as a pilot program to provide teens with a paid summer job working on a sustainable urban farm. The educational model has expanded to include a dozen additional farms, mainly near Chicago, all supported by the Chicago Botanic Garden's Windy City Harvest Program.
The initiative is designed to engage high school students who are exposed to varied risk patterns, including: low academic performance, homelessness, social rejection by peers and involvement with the juvenile justice system.
In addition to gaining work experience, teens also gain entrepreneurial and job skills training, guidance by adult mentors, and exposure to healthy foods and cooking. They also provide affordable produce to Lake County's food-insecure residents, and nutrition demonstrations at local Women, Infants and Children centers.
Working on the Green Youth Farm provides an experience that uplifts the lives of students and, in turn, their communities. Since 2003, more than 320 young people have been employed at the Green Youth Farm in Lake County. Together they have produced more than 60,000 pounds of fresh produce.
Fresh produce is available for purchase weekly at a farm stand that operates from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Wednesdays through Oct. 9 at Greenbelt Cultural Center, 1215 N. Green Bay Road, North Chicago. Herbs, honey, garlic, flowers, and fresh vegetables and fruit are available at discount prices.
The teenagers in the program operate the farm stand.
"I really enjoy selling the produce," Miguel Figueroa said last week.
"The sale is really fun," agreed Waukegan High School student Arissa Harris. She said she also enjoys harvesting, adding that the group works hard. "I really like how we have all come together like a family to get the job done. No one slacks off. We stick together," said Harris, who wants to go to college and become a doctor.
Alison Halweg, a grower with Windy City Harvest, enjoys working with the students.
"I like the teaching aspect. It's all about social and emotional learning," she said. The Beach Park resident had her own small farm for six years after she studied sustainable agriculture at the College of Lake County.
"It's fun to share my knowledge with the kids. It's important for them to grow up with the connection to food, earth and sustainability," she said.
To learn more about the Green Youth Farm, an open house is taking place from 4-6 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 1. Students will lead farm walks throughout the event, and food and refreshments will be provided.
The program addresses an array of life lessons and life skills, said Rebekah Snyder, executive director of the Preservation Foundation of the Lake County Forest Preserves.
"It's a trifecta. You have kids getting jobs, spending quality time with mentors and providing healthy food for the community," she said.
• Kim Mikus is a communications specialist for the Lake County Forest Preserves. She writes a bimonthly column about various aspects of the preserves. Contact her with ideas or questions at kmikuscroke@LCFPD.org. Connect with the Lake County Forest Preserves on social media @LCFPD.