Story and photos by Mike Brownlee
Jontae goes to the garden when he’s stressed or happy or down. The 14-year-old is the leading member of the Butler-Gast YMCA Teen Garden program. He oversees four plots, each 12 x 6 feet, at 34th and Ames avenues in Omaha. A few other teens help when they can, but on most days it’s Jontae. “I just like gardening,” the soft-spoken teen said. “It’s fun, and it’s helpful to the environment.”
The Butler-Gast program has evolved since its inception three years ago. In 2010, teens grew vegetables at a church on Ames Street. Then the program set up its own plot near the neighborhood teen center just down the road from the Butler-Gast YMCA. “We wanted to cultivate the idea of healthy eating and nutrition,” said Eleshia Teet, who started the program and served as its teen center director before leaving the institution to focus on raising her family. “We also wanted to instill a sense of being self-sustaining with teens having the ability to grow their food.”
Butler-Gast is located in a section of Omaha designated as a “food desert” by No More Empty Pots, a nonprofit organization dedicated to self-sufficiency and economically resilient communities. Last year, Butler-Gast received grant funding from No More Empty Pots. With the money, teen garden program leaders were able to purchase equipment, soil and seed for the garden.
Access to fresh, healthy food is a problem. Eleshia said for that reason and others, kids and teenagers in this area’s neighborhoods are at risk. “Sometimes kids develop a taste that they don’t like vegetables. With the program where they are growing the food, they’ll open their minds to the idea of trying them,” she said. Last year they grew squash, for example, and more than a few area teens took a bite and said “Oh yeah, I could eat that.” Eleshia went on to explain, “It’s a start to getting them to eat and enjoy nutritious foods. We want them to understand how to eat healthy, what healthy foods are and how to prepare them.”
Eleshia said that the program has an apt pupil in Jontae. “He likes anything outdoors, and he has often worked with me in my garden,” said Tom, Jontae’s foster dad. “When Eleshia called about the program, we thought it would be up his alley.” Tom grew up on a farm, and at his south Omaha home he has a small vegetable garden and flower beds surrounding the house. Jontae joined Tom and his wife, Traci, in March 2011, and Tom often tells the teen stories about his days on the farm as they work in the yard together.
With the Butler-Gast program, Jontae “wanted to see a little bit of what farm life was like,” Tom said. “I told him it would be a lot of hard work. And you put in a whole lot of work and don’t know what’s going to happen.” Last summer’s scorching heat left Jontae’s cucumber and basil crops withered and almost nonexistent. But his peppers and especially his tomatoes thrived.
The gardener pored over books about gardening so he could learn organic techniques, such as discouraging bugs with marigolds. “The smell keeps them away,” he said. To keep moisture in the soil and the weeds at a minimum, he places wet newspapers on the soil and then adds a layer of mulch. The Butler-Gast program’s focus on organic is one reason why Jontae joined. “I like the idea of allorganic gardening,” he said. “No fertilizers, no chemicals. It seemed really cool.”
Jontae’s a big kid, tall and broad. But in his garden, he’s gentle and measured and truly loves the simple enjoyment of working in a garden. His favorite pastime, he said is to watch the plants and flowers progress. “To see how they grow, see how they produce,” he said. “Just watching.” Mike Brownlee covers southwest Iowa for The Daily Nonpareil in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Deer ate the bell peppers he and his wife tried to grow last summer, a disappointing end to their first foray into gardening.