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Roots & Wings Youth Leaders Take Chicago

Learning Center board member and volunteer Constance McCarthy shares her experience of a recent educational trip to Chicago with Roots & Wings youth.


Early on Friday, June 18, the Roots & Wings Youth Leaders headed into Chicago for a two-day whirlwind urban agriculture tour and team-building activities. The EcoAdvocates, the newest member of the Roots & Wings network, joined us on Friday, as well. At the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, we met Martha Boyd, Director of Angelic Organics Learning Center's Chicago Urban Initiative and our tour guide for the day. She showed us all kinds of farm animals and an amazing aquaponics facility. Tilapia are raised in tanks; the dirty water feeds and irrigates beds of basil, and is eventually circulated back to the fish tanks. The Youth Leaders were inspired by what they saw, and left with dreams of fish farms in Rockford.


At the Wood Street Urban Farm of Growing Home, we toured the certified-organic hoop houses and gardens. This site provides job training and classes for difficult to employ folks -- another inspiration for the Youth Leaders. The youth could see the similarities with the Roots & Wings gardens in Rockford, which are about so much more than "just" growing food.


A trip to Chicago wouldn't be complete without a visit to the AOLC offices in Woodlawn. Youth Leaders and EcoAdvocates toured the gardens, saw much activity around the beehives, and helped prepare for the June 19 AOLC Solstice Celebration.


Plans to spend some time at the beach were abandoned when a severe thunderstorm blew in. Even though we were safe in our van, some of the youth were scared. However, they pulled together as a group, sang songs, and enjoyed seeing the sights out the window on the way to the youth hostel. We ate dinner at the Parthenon restaurant in Greektown, when many of us tried new foods and were mesmerized by the frequent displays of flaming saganaki and waiters shouting, "Opa!"


Our first stop on Saturday was the ECO co-op in Pilsen, where we saw an amazing rooftop garden, complete with compost bins and raised beds. As the El trains rolled by every few minutes, we saw many curious faces peering out at this beautiful and unexpected spot of green amidst the urban landscape. The garden is partially irrigated with grey water from the building, and also contains some native plants.


Next up: City Farm, located on land where part of the Cabrini-Green housing project once stood. Our initial plans to tour the farm seemed to change at the last minute due to a previously scheduled volunteer work day. Undeterred, we walked around the outer fence to see what we could see. Fortune smiled on us when a long-time volunteer, an elderly gentleman named Jimmy, took it upon himself to invite us in. He told us about his life as a two-time survivor of cancer, and stressed the importance of eating well. While his dream of putting hospitals and drug companies out of business – if everyone were to stay healthy by eating properly – might never be realized, his passion for his mission was definitely contagious. He gave us a tour of the gardens, pointing out the many kinds of vegetables that they grow, as well as several bee hives.


At City Farm, we also got to meet Nate, the sales manager who is the liaison between the farm and mainly high-end restaurants in Chicago. Because he is a chef in the off-season, he is familiar with the types, sizes, and quality of vegetables that such establishments are looking for. But this is not just a farm that supplies food for well-heeled diners. They also have a farm stand there every week, selling veggies to anyone who stops by. We were especially inspired by their desire never to send someone away without food. For low-income neighbors, veggies are offered at a fraction of the price charged to the restaurants, often for whatever the person can afford to pay. The Youth Leaders were especially inspired by this brand of food justice.


It was then on to the Green City farmers market in Lincoln Park. Small groups of Youth Leaders and an adult were sent out into the market to shop for food for our lunch. We asked the farmers about where their farms were located, and the methods they used to grow their produce. We were again lucky at the market, running into Christine Cikowski, a former AOLC board member and a chef with Sunday Dinner Club.


We prepared and ate a delicious picnic lunch in the park, and spent the rest of our afternoon discussing weighty topics, such as how are teens are perceived by society, and how the Youth Leaders want to be perceived as a group. This led to mutual agreement on group norms – much more positive and effective than imposing rules from the top down.


I returned home with a very happy heart. This year marks the first major expansion of the Youth Leader group, as we invited a handful of kids who are completely new to Roots & Wings. I wondered how the core group of Youth Leaders would interact with the newcomers, and whether this transition would be smooth sailing or a bumpy patch. I should have known better to have such doubts, for once again these awesome young people just blew me out of the water. Never once were they late when they needed to organize themselves for the next activity. Never once was there a cross word among them. Even in the restaurant, they stuck to their agreed group norms, and they could not have been better behaved. As I gave a brief lesson on how to cut up food with a knife and fork, I was reminded that this program not only helps these young folks to find their voice as leaders, but also passes along valuable life skills. This is my fifth year working with Roots & Wings, and I must say that the youth have helped me to grow as a person, too, and have even taught me a few good dance moves along the way.


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