–Michael Tierney, Big Ugly

Sometimes when you continue to raise issues and experiment with programs year after year you have a turning point that those individual investments come together to move the community forward in a major way. This happened at the Big Ugly Community Center several years ago when we applied to be a Grow Appalachia partner.  We had worked on food security and in particular seeing that children were fed since we opened the Center’s doors in the fall of 1995.  And we had a number of attempts to launch a greenhouse (that at times looked like a very strange front porch).  Since Grow Appalachia Director David Cooke is a former Big Ugly man we knew about the program in it’s earliest stages but we waited to apply until the right people had built the right momentum for us to succeed.

It feels like this is happening with the dream of providing pathways for our young people to develop solid transferable skills for their economic future. Grow Appalachia and work in agriculture is a big part of our connecting those dots.

Our teens at Big Ugly Community Center like to dig in and get to work when they come to our programs. They want to make a concrete contribution rather than continue to think of themselves as child participants in an after school program or summer campers.  We have always developed service projects and always engaged kids in helping run and providing upkeep for the Center (we have no formal support from any branch of government or the local school system and exist entirely on donations and small program grants). But last summer we formalized the arrangement and structured formal internships. Youth in the teen and tween stage structure their time in summer or each semester around a particular internships (greenhouse, energy efficiency, social media, teachers aide, etc).  They average around 40 hours per season and receive a small $100 honorarium to thank them for their service (most of which goes towards school clothes or shoes).

BUCC greenhouse interns

BUCC greenhouse interns

This spring their participation in the greenhouse has taken off in a big way. They have helped the “greenhouse lady” (GA team member Marcelle) start over 2000 seedlings.  Some are more successful than others (small fingers work better with the 300+ seeding trays and some kids certain are more dedicated and adept at putting one seed per cell.) But they are uniformly surprised at “how much fun” the work is and continue to express their disbelief that these tiny frail strands will yield a cabbage or a head of broccoli.  Marcelle is going to work with the interns to download pictures of the varieties of vegetables they grow and at transplant stage have them each put together their own tray for their personal section of our Big Ugly raised beds (or their garden at home, or hopefully both).

We have also established a very exciting partnership with Coalfield Development Corporation that is doing some of the most innovative work with building real skills among youth, 18 to 25. Director Brandon Dennison and his staff have launched the program in Wayne, Mingo, Cabell and Lincoln Counties. (We hope to work with them to expand to Logan County as well).  Their model engages crews of youth 33 hours per week in work at $10.00 hour, 6 hours per week with community college classes and five hours per week in personal development (the latter two at $5./hour).  They have developed partnerships with local community college systems to have this yield an Associates Degree in Entrepreneurship.  Construction has been the first focus but they plan to launch a second concentration in agriculture by this fall.  One exciting aspect of their model is that 40% of their funding comes from earned revenue: selling materials from deconstructed buildings with the first team.  They plan to raise similar amounts with the gardening focus of the new program.  This is a natural next step for the teen interns they move from their greenhouse work to building trellis’ and birdhouses for gardeners this spring. We can already see those small fingers growing into strong working hands.