Foster Care to Farm Hand

DBT14

How to Succeed in Business With No Car, No Diploma, No Cash and No Experience

By Kathy Canavan
Senior Staff Writer

Leonard Roach didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life – until he became a farmer.

“I don’t have a lot of social skills. I was diagnosed with a lot of things,” Roach said, sweat covering his face like icing as he tended his squash in 80-degree mid-day heat. “This teaches me something a lot of people don’t know, though.”

“I learned what nutrients a plant needs and how to kill insects without chemicals. Besides, it keeps me out of trouble. Oops! That should have been number one on the list,” he said.

Roach, 24, drifted from foster care to prison until he landed a summer job at Bright Spot Ventures, a farm-to- food-desert venture hatched by West End Neighborhood House to put young adults who have aged out of foster care to work and teach them transferrable skills. Bright Spot’s typical applicant has no car, no house, no diploma, no work experience and not even enough money to ride the bus to work.

Running the program was like holding Jello without a bowl some days. Imagine a farm that can’t open until the DART buses start running. How does a phone tree work when most workers can’t afford phones? Employees needed bus fare until their first paychecks were issued. When mulch or black plastic was needed, local farmers and landscapers pitched in.

The half-acre farmette on the former site of Delaware Psychiatric Center’s residential cottages on Route 13 is a success, even though Sindhu Siva, one of the supervisors, freely admits, “It may be that this farm never makes money.”

Success Number One: Bright Spot brought reasonably priced, fresh, local produce to nine underserved spots in Wilmington all summer.

Success Number Two: It also provided housing, GED-help, jobs and employment training for four young adults who had aged out of foster care.

“If you are 20-something and trying to get a job, you either need to have skills or you need to know someone,” Siva said. “The skills they learn here are transferable – reliability, a solid work ethic, customer service.”

Although youth age out of foster care at 18, the state offers Independent Living Services, which can extend mentoring, tuition assistance, support with transitional living and training in life skills and personal development to age 21.

West End aims to fill in as many blanks as possible for former foster kids, including many over 21. “Many of our workers haven’t had good role models to teach them to show up on time, conflict resolution, how to communicate if they have a challenge,” Siva said.

She said a business’ success depends on good management and good employees, and Bright Spot’s employees should get credit for its success. “None of these guys had worked in ag before. They have been willing to learn on the fly and really be uncomfortable at times, but it’s really to their credit that the program is as successful as it is.”

Roach, who said the work already built his muscles and his skills, wants to be a tree farmer. Tevin Beatty, 22, said the program taught him agricultural and retail skills. “It’s helping me move forward. My foundation has cracks and bruises all over it,” he said.

Nataysha Williams, 18, who previously worked in a clothing store, said she loves picking vegetables and flowers on the farm. “I’m really compassionate about this. When I worked at American Eagle, I didn’t make the clothes, but I grew these myself, so I’m compassionate about them,” she said.

Mike McCafferty, a former teacher who runs the program and operated Farm Meadows Nursery in Hockessin for 22 years, said those who complete the curriculum approved by the Delaware Nursery & Landscape Association will receive a certificate — and a job.

McCafferty said it makes sense that the program is one growing season long. “In that six to nine months, you can grow a plant from seed to harvest, and that’s a big thing because these kids have been pushed around and moved around pretty much.”

As the weather cools, Bright Spot workers will return to a greenhouse tucked away behind some storage buildings on the Holloway campus to grow starter plants for sale to community gardens next spring.

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