Growing Job Skills in Pontiac

PONTIAC — Kejanae Hollins, a 16-year-old Pontiac student, looks more comfortable than you’d imagine a teenage girl might with a shovel in one hand and a dandelion caked with dirt in the other.

She’s part of Baldwin Center’s summer youth employment program, where she spends eight hours a week learning gardening skills, gaining knowledge about where food comes from, and building employment and entrepreneurial skills. The other 16 hours a week in the program focus on outdoor recreation activities related to team building and job skills development.

She has learned much from the program, which started at the end of July and will run through September, and she readily admits learning new skills and trying different activities was more rewarding than what her August may have looked like.

“I know I wouldn’t be doing anything active,” Hollins says. “I’d just be sitting around eating and gaining weight.”  She is proud of how much she has learned about gardening and nutrition and has enjoyed the more adventurous recreational activities like bike riding and ropes courses.

But her favorite activity is taking the produce to market, where her friendly personality lends itself well to selling and interacting with shoppers.

Matt Matthews, Baldwin Center program associate and assistant youth director, works with the youth in the gardens. He has been both surprised and excited about how hard the students work. “They’re focused and willing to take on new tasks, try new things, and literally get their hands dirty, doing things like turning compost.”

But her favorite activity is taking the produce to market, where her friendly personality lends itself well to selling and interacting with shoppers.

The community has also taken notice.  Once unused land has been transformed into two gardens and one hoop house that surround Baldwin Center’s clothing bank, which is housed in a two-story red house with butter-yellow trim on Baldwin Avenue. The gardens are filled with tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash and many other vegetables and surrounded by 12-foot sunflowers, fuchsia zinnias, and bright orange nasturtium.

These gardens not only beautify the neighborhood, but community members are glad they are to see youth working in the gardens as early as 6:00 in the morning and as late as 9:00 at night. The youth also work at other community gardens that need help, including Grace and Peace Community Church in Pontiac, Kensington Church in Oakland, and the Oakland University Student Organic Farm.

The program has 51 participants, ages 16 to 19, who are divided into five work pods.  The pods work different shifts; either 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. or 1:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. The teens earn $8/hour to work in the gardens -- weeding, mulching, harvesting, planting fall crops, and taking product to market. They sell the produce at three different Michigan farmers markets, and what doesn’t sell goes back into the community via Baldwin Center’s Family Soup Kitchen.

A student tends the garden at Baldwin center

The program is funded by the Michigan DNR and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and receives hands-on support from Oakland University. Dr. Fay Hansen and OU college students work with youth in the OU garden and provide leadership and technical support at Baldwin Center’s gardening sites.

Summer youth employment program organizers were shocked at the immediate response they received from youth after announcing the program was seeking applicants. A total of three orientation sessions were filled with young people eager to work and have something to occupy their summer.

According to Alex Plum, community affairs coordinator for Baldwin Center, when the students received their first paycheck – and very first paycheck ever for many of the students – the excitement was palpable. “You should have seen their faces,” says Plum. “They had ear-to-ear grins.”

Learning what to do with those paychecks is part of the program. While all the kids in the program knew they could cash checks at a liquor store for a charge, not all of them knew that with a bank account they could cash checks for free. So, Matthews brought in a representative from PNC Bank to talk about having a bank account and managing and saving money.

With this knowledge, Matthews has seen students’ mindsets shift about money, and he says that they value money differently now that they earned it.

But most importantly, they are learning skills that better position them to find gainful employment in the future. They are learning how to discuss workplace problems with supervisors, finding value and satisfaction in acquiring new skills, and building relationships and community connections – and getting a little dirty along the way.


The Baldwin Center needs garden supplies along with patronage at farmers markets where the students sell: Auburn Hills Farmers Market, Birmingham Farmers Market, and Oakland County Farmers Market in Waterford.

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