A new grant-funded pilot program will bring economic opportunity, fresh produce, and opportunities for intergenerational friendships to the West Willow neighborhood of Ypsilanti Township this summer and fall.
The four main focus areas of the initiative, entitled the Community Gardens Earn and Learn Program, are:
- older adults mentoring youth on starting a business for a new weekly farmers market at the New West Willow Neighborhood Association (NWWNA) resource center, 2057 Tyler Rd. in Ypsilanti Township;
- involving older adults and youth in paid gardening work at three community locations through a program called Community Gardens Earn and Learn;
- matching youth with older adults to collaborate on storytelling; and
- forming teams of older adults and youth to address quality of life problems in the neighborhood.
The program is made possible with $20,000 in funding from the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation
and the Glacier Hills Legacy Fund
. Whitehead Memorial Church of God in Christ
will make its parking lot available for the farmers market, and the nonprofit Common Cycle
will provide bike repair services at the market. The program will be implemented by three community partners: the NWWNA, New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church
, and Journey of Faith Christian Church
. The intergenerational gardening project and the new farmers market will kick off on June 18. Programming for youth concludes at the end of August, but the farmers market will run from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. each Saturday through October.
JoAnn McCollum, president of the NWWNA, says she and other association members are excited about the Community Gardens Earn and Learn Program and the farmers market that comes along with it.
New West Willow Neighborhood Association president JoAnn McCollum.
"We think it's helpful for seniors so that they can continue to inspire and educate the youth, and it gives youth activities throughout the summer," McCollum says. "And everyone is paid to come and work, and they don't have to find transportation because it's right here in their neighborhood."
About 10 to 12 youth will be recruited to participate in the pilot program, and each will receive stipends for regular participation. Program organizers are also recruiting older adults to mentor the youth both in gardening and entrepreneurship.
NWWNA, New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church, and Journey of Faith Christian Church each have their own community garden, and participants will be welcome to work in any of the three.
Pastor David Crout of New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church says his congregation has been tending a garden on the church's grounds for four or five years as a way to provide healthy, fresh produce to community members who live in an area with no major grocery store in walking distance. He says that collaborating with the NWWNA will be a chance to make the garden "bigger and better."
"In years past, we'd harvest the vegetables and put them out on the street for people to take at will. That worked out well, but there's always room to grow," Crout says. "We want people to be a part of the growing process and the life of the community."
He says he's looking forward to connecting community members with older adults who can share gardening skills and other insights.
Pastor David Crout of New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church by the church's gardens.
"It will also allow seniors to get a close-up view of young people's experiences they're going through today," Crout says.
Crout says he's grateful to the other church partner, Journey of Faith, and particularly congregation member Jo Ella Coles, who helped secure grant funding for the project. He describes her as "plugged in and vested and interested in supporting this community."
"The thing I like best about her is her understanding that the people that have always lived in the area ought to have some stake, some say in terms of what they need," Crout says. "They don't just try to give young people what they think they need. They empower them to make choices and be self-sufficient and independent."
Josh McAllister, a local farmer and founder of nonprofit organization 2Marines, will serve as manager of the West Willow Farmers Market. TC Collins, founder of gardening nonprofit Willow Run Acres, will serve as assistant market manager.
McAllister will use $6,000 of the $20,000 grant to provide stipends for up to 50 hours of work for youth across the summer months. He says he already has more than 20 community members lined up to vend at the first farmers market on June 18 as well.
McAllister says he'll use the Power of Produce
program, created by the national nonprofit Farmers Market Coalition, with young participants. They'll interact with local farmers, learn more about produce, and receive money to spend at their local farmers market.
West Willow Farmers Market manager Josh McAllister.
"We're trying to get some pride back here, doing something for the community," McAllister says. "We want to kick off this farmers market and show what kind of help is here in West Willow."
McAllister notes that the bar is low to sell at the market, and people who have traditionally just grown a small backyard garden can make some money selling that produce at their local market.
McCollum says she hopes the program will build long-term relationships between area residents, and between residents and the neighborhood association.
"We want to hear from youth, and this is an opportunity for us to engage and connect to youth and listen to what their ideas are and what's important to them," McCollum says.
Collins notes that many people were cooped up inside during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the new programs provide an opportunity to spend time outdoors. He says his main goal, though, is to make sure that West Willow doesn't remain a "food desert."
"We're giving the community fresh food and fresh opportunities," Collins says.
Individuals, churches, and other organizations interested in volunteering with youth or selling at the market can connect with organizers by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (734) 985-0549.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at email@example.com.
All photos by Doug Coombe.