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Teens Grow Greens Program Aims to Cultivate More Than Vegetables in Milwaukee

The nine-month after school and summer program aims to arm students from across the Milwaukee area with hands on experience and skills that start with gardening, but grow into something larger.

This week, year two of Teens Grow Greens wrapped up.

Charlie Uihlein came up with the idea. He teaches honors history at Messmer High School, but when he’s not doing that, Uihlein is thinking about ways to improve Teens Grow Greens.

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Volunteers Cindy and Meg Kilkenny.

Cindy Kilkenny had a few ideas - why not introduce more people who care about giving teens more opportunities to what Teens Grow Greens is trying to accomplish?

So Kilkenny started cooking, literally, and pulled her daughter Meg into the kitchen at the Riverside Park branch of the Urban Ecology Center. Meg just finished preparing a mound of collards – straight from the Teens Grow Greens’ garden.

The kitchen door swings open to the Kilkenny buffet. Beyond, team members are at the ready to share their Teens Grow Greens experience with friends and family.

Each teen created table top display summarizing what they’d learned. It doesn’t take long to realize, the 9-month experience dug deeper than a few photographs and flow charts can possibly reflect.

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Credit Teens Grow Greens
DeAnthony Tripp Smith is an Alliance High School junior. This was a proud day for the team member - his "Mean N' Clean" product sold out at Eastside Green Market.

Ryan Graham, nattily dressed in red dress shirt and tie, is a Carmen High School junior.

The Teens Grow Greens team are charged with equipping themselves for gainful employment. Along the way, they’re coached to set and articulate their personal goals

Graham says another goal is to be knowledgeable and experienced in healthy living. “To achieve that goal, I made a healthy salsa with my teammates and even though it didn’t taste the best, it was visually appetizing and healthy,” he says.

After the salsa, Graham came up with and produced his own product – a lip balm. But more than anything, Graham says he learned to work as a member of a team.

“At first I was really uncomfortable, because I wasn’t a team worker, because whenever I would work in teams, I would do all the work. But this was eye opening,” he says. He learned to how to put trust in others. “And that’s something I really struggled with, and probably the reason why I didn’t talk as much."

The soft giggle you might have heard, bubbled out of Graham’s proud cousin, Shawn Graham-Miller, who was truly impressed  with what her cousin and his teammates accomplished.

“I did go to one of their events and bought some of their vegetables to plant in my own garden. I’ve had a garden for three years, but it’s still new to me, so I would call him for tips,” Graham-Miller says.

But Ryan Graham says he knew nothing about soil and seeds until thrown into it by Teens Grow Greens. Through the program, the teens start sprouts from seed in space donated by a greenhouse owner on Green Bay Avenue, and during the growing season, they cultivate vegetables and herbs on a lot on Milwaukee’s northwest side.

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Credit Teens Grow Greens
Jameya Lumpkins and Ryan Graham holding tomatoes they grew from seeds. Photo taken at MKE Kitchen in Riverwest, one of Teens Grow Greens community partners.

“I was horrible at gardening, but I learned about weeding, about weeds and how to identify them,” he says.

Fellow Carmen High School student Jameya Lumpkins came up with a vegan cookie packaged in packs of two. She loved the baking part, but says the business part - selling at farmers markets terrified her.

“I’m not big on speaking and being able to engage in conversations. But that’s one of the growth points that I had; from the start of working at farmers markets to the end, I was able to engage in conversation with customers instead of being hesitant," she says.

Lumpkins says when she heads to college, she’ll know how to manage money. “The financial aspect, it taught us how to save and manage money, how to make business models and how to make a profit off a product,” she says.

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Quinn Wheeler (right) shares his story at recent event at Urban Ecology Center.

Rufus King senior Quinn Wheeler says the program helped him land a summer job with the parks department. He says he learned a lot there too.

“I did a lot of maintenance and clean up. And I learned to work on my own, because a lot of times I wasn’t supervised. I learned how to just get things done even if you don’t want to do it.,” Wheeler says.

He says the personal health component of the Teens Grow Greens curriculum profoundly affected him. He began reading labels on food, sometimes to his mom’s consternation.

“I think my mom actually gets frustrated with me now, because I’ll tell her what’s in the food,” Wheeler says.

He now goes to the gym regularly and has taken up running, and he’s planning next steps after high school. “I want to study Kinesiology, so I can be a personal trainer because I realize how impactful it can be to help somebody with something like that,” Wheeler says.

Wheeler says although Teens Grow Greens keeps team members busy, and on task, it also teaches them to slow down and think about what they’ve done: “One of the big things that I took away from it personally is the reflecting, because we had to reflect on our performance before we got paid,” he says.

The Teens are paid on an incentive base. Starting out at $7.25 an hour, and can rise to $8.50, if they consistently demonstrate the principles of leadership, respect and responsibility. “And not only our performance, but other people’s performance,” Wheeler says.

Team members learned the delicate balance of sharing something positive about their teammate’s work and what they could improve. Wheeler says they called the process “roses and thorns.”

Eventually guests stopped munching on wholesome freshly-made snacks and sipping sparkling virgin mojitos long enough to sit before a nervous, yet seasoned group of teens.

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Charlie Stull's interests include archeology. "I am interested in antiquities. I would like to travel a lot, go different places, eat different food, be exposed to different cultures," he says.

Kradwell High School senior Charlie Stull takes a deep breath and steps in front of the crowd. Stull proudly announces he lost weight when he learned to eat healthier, and described his product - Grand Master Granola. It features cranberries, organic dark chocolate and a secret blend of spices.

But more than anything, Stull says, hands tucked in the lapels of this smart dark sports jacket, “ I feel like the most important thing I got from this organization is the power to be myself and to go out in front of you guys and speak today,” Stull says.

Teens Grow Greens founder Charlie Uihlein allows himself a millisecond to beam proudly, before he says Teens Grow Greens could do better, for starters, retaining team members.

“We start off with 11, we now have five and I think instead of hiding from that, I think we should embrace it and say how can we get better at that,” Uihlein says.

He says their garden needs to become more productive. “It does create some food, but it’s nowhere where it should be. We are going to hire a garden manager who knows a lot more than I do,” Uihlein says.

Still, Nicole Green thinks Teens Grow Greens has a winning formula. “I was at the local green market near Beans and Barley, his students were selling some vegetables. Charlie told me about the program. I was involved with the Student Startup Challenge and entrepreneurship at UWM, and I thought these high school students were amazing individuals and we need to get them involved,” Green says.

Green, who is a UWM business grad student, says she helped the teens tweak their product ideas and coached their sales pitches.

“It’s so amazing because there are a lot of programs in Milwaukee where it’s let me teach you how to grow something in a garden. But Charlie has taken that one step and beyond further. I’m going to teach you this, but I’m also going to teach you to be an active citizen, I’m going to teach you about financial awareness, entrepreneurship, that doesn’t just apply to selling ChapStick, but translates into selling yourself when you are trying to get into college or into a new job,” Green says.

After the teens matriculate from the program this week, Teens Grow Greens founder Charlie Uihlein plans to dig right in, fine tuning the curriculum and working through strategic planning.

By November he’ll be out recruiting the next batch of teens. Uihlein aims to attract and retain 11 students. He says Teens Grow Greens graduates will be doing the talking during recruitment.

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Credit Teens Grow Greens
2015 Teens Grow Greens members at Eastside Green Market.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.