Safe Place for Youth’s Community Garden cultivates jobs and tranquility for local homeless youth
Story Gary Walker | Photos By Ted Soqui
Talk to anyone who spends time in a garden and almost invariably they mention how it makes them feel relaxed, serene — even safe.
In Safe Place for Youth’s Community Garden on Venice Boulevard, butterflies and pollinators dance among the plants and fruit trees just in front of literary arts center Beyond Baroque, where practically every square inch is covered in green. Rich, black topsoil surround some of the plants like an organic sentry, its slightly pungent smell rising with the ocean breeze on a February day.
For Althena Gelfand, working in Safe Place for Youth’s Community Garden as an intern has been a way to connect with nature.
“I really like working with plants, getting my hands dirty. It’s really therapeutic,” says Gelfand, 21.
While SPY’s garden internship program is currently in hibernation as the world collectively pauses to combat the spread of COVID-19, the homeless services nonprofit’s patch of green space has served for the last two years as a refuge for local youth from a chaotic world.
“There’s no doubt that we will resume and absolutely grow the internship program as soon as it’s safe to,” says SPY Garden Manager Emily Alford. “We’re all altering our lifestyles to care for the community at large. That is a theme that has carried to the garden.”
Intern Trevion Beck says he wishes there were more spaces like the SPY garden.
“It’s a safe place for people to spend time relaxing, admiring butterflies, and smelling fragrant herbs like lavender and rosemary,” Beck says.
“Green space [is] a mental health benefit,” says Alford. “Some people innately and easily gravitate toward the garden because they instantly feel that it’s calming and anxiety reducing. But there are others who have virtually no experience with gardening but still are able to tap into that deeper, innate place. … I’m blown away by the amount of feedback that I hear from the youth who come out here and put their hands in the soil who tell me how calming that is for them.”
Former SPY intern Taris Auberry says the garden represents a sense of renewal, a place where she feels rejuvenated.
“When I feel weak, and after I work here in the soil and with these plants, it gives me strength. It’s very grounding and it keeps you in the present moment,” says Auberry, 24.
Auberry, Beck and Gelfand are among SPY’s current and former clients who have discovered an inherent passion for urban gardening during their internships. While she did not intern at the garden, SPY Garden Community Coordinator Natalie Flores Blackner sees herself in many of the interns.
“Getting involved in gardening was the best thing that ever happened to me,” says Flores Blackner, who admits to being a “lost youth” in her early 20s. “We’ve created incredible topsoil that was not here before. Through mulching and composting we’ve created a great fertilizer and that is helping our community get fertilized. They are the fruits and the results of this wonderful fertilization.”
Founded in 2011 by Executive Director Alison Hurst and a group of volunteers, SPY has grown from an all-volunteer group into a full-service youth organization with paid staff members and now works to house youths in Venice as well as put them to work through various programs, including the Community Garden.
The garden yields a bounty of fruits and vegetables: arugula, radishes, cauliflower, lettuce, kale, cabbage, baby carrots, beets, fruit trees, figs, mulberries, avocados, peaches, pears, passion fruit, lemons and sugarcane. And much of what is harvested is sold at SPY and consumed by its staff and clients.
Once owned by the environmental and soil regeneration nonprofit Kiss the Ground, the SPY Community Garden is not just a place to mellow out and get into a Zen-like state.
In 2018, the garden produced 269 pounds of fresh produce, which is eaten at SPY and sold at the SPY Youth Farmers Market and other venues. Last year, the SPY Community Garden Farmstand at the youth market earned $1,347 in revenue.
“We try not to let anything go to waste. Carrot top pesto is sold at our stands and we always sell out of it,” says Alford.
In 2019, 60% of garden-based interns gained jobs in industries directly related to work performed at the garden. Over the last two years, youth interns have found jobs in landscaping, social services, and produce management in grocery stores and restaurants.
“We’re igniting entrepreneurship and we’re igniting the skills that they have within them that can be harnessed and used in the real world,” says Hurst, a former landscape consultant.
One of those youths is Allison Arnott, who was a SPY Community Garden intern in 2017. Working in the garden has given her an added appreciation for organic produce now that she has worked in that industry. Since her internship, she has worked as a cash manager at the organic produce store Rainbow Acres in Culver City.
“Working here feels really aligned with some of the things that I really like, such as working for a store that provides healthy, natural food instead of for some corporation that doesn’t care about sustainability,” says Arnott, 24. “It was such a wonderful feeling of taking care of something and then seeing it grow.”
Once a week Alford harvests greens from the garden for a large salad with other garden ingredients that is served at the SPY Access Center. Lunch is cooked whenever interns come to work at the garden, which gives them an opportunity to actually eat what they spend hours cultivating.
“We’re trying to grow as much food as possible in order to feed as many people possible,” says Alford.
In an effort to bridge the current widening divide between opponents of housing homeless foster youth and adults and those who support more housing, SPY hosts a community meal at the garden four times a year where anyone — regardless of their positions on local politics — is welcome to come and enjoy the garden’s bounty.
“It’s an incredible opportunity for people from all sides to come together to break bread. Our youth can show off the produce that they’ve grown and we think it’s a great way to humanize all sides,” Alford says.
“It’s almost like this oasis in the major crisis where the unhoused community and the housed community can come together to hear conversations,” Hurst adds.
Mar Vista resident Susan Klos has visited the garden and when she built her own garden several years ago she hired several SPY teens to work on it. She sees the garden as a stress-reducing environment as well as a place to grow food in an urban setting.
“It’s a gift to the community. It’s a wonderful place where you can escape the rat race and relax in a tranquil setting,” says Klos, a member of Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ Empowerment Congress Mental Health Committee.
Hurst says she hopes to expand the number of internships as well as the items that she grows in the garden this year. Last year, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl awarded the garden program with a $40,000 grant from her Food for The Soul initiative and SPY is hoping to implement similar funding from a recently awarded grant soon.
“So many of the youth who we provide services to feel that they have nothing to offer because they’ve been told that over and over again,” Hurst says. “So we’re trying to find a way to tap the beauty that is within them.”
Safe Place for Youth continues to serve local youth in need through its Access Center. To make a donation, visit safeplaceforyouth.org