I watched the teen dig intently in the soil of The Portland Kitchen’s “Pizza Garden”, his hands near black with earth. Without looking at me, he held up a perfectly ripened, Calabash tomato and quietly stated that it was for me. I smiled and glanced over at a pair of girls meticulously watering a healthy plot of oregano and rosemary. “What makes the garden so appealing to you guys?” I asked, knowing the kids were responding well to the project. He pulled back to sit on his calves and appeared to lose himself in thought for just a moment.
“I’ve never lived anywhere with a yard,” he said and went back to his work. Those words struck a serious chord. I recalled a few of the simple things I’d taken for granted that day – a morning latté, a shower, a drive to work in sweltering heat in the comfort of my air-conditioned vehicle, even breakfast. The kids continued about their gardening, paying little attention to me as I stood there with my thoughts.
The Portland Kitchen is an outstanding organization, one that works day and night to change the lives of low-income and at-risk youth in Portland, Oregon. TPK nurtures successful futures by teaching culinary techniques, social skills and healthy disciplines “to last a lifetime.”
I initially became involved with TPK in late 2015, utilizing my role with NW Priority Credit Union to better understand the underserved youth in our community and to gauge the interest and need for specialized financial literacy. Without question, the things I’ve learned from these students have opened my eyes.
First and foremost, I’ve learned that assistance programs offered outside of school and within community settings yield clearer communication – among students and volunteer staff – concerning what needs to change and how we make that happen. Implementing a financial literacy program to serve at-risk youth for example, isn’t just about people helping people, it’s about developing a more productive and educated workforce; it’s about highlighting the paybacks of a young person’s civil engagement and about gifting these youth the tools for a chance at change.
These youth are people too. Many have already been living as adults, travailing the hardships* we all face – loneliness, unemployment, unplanned housing situations, unplanned parenthood, and the list goes on. They too live with the constant bombardment of media, selling perfection to us as if it’s status quo. People Providing Hope engages participants on their level, with compassion and trust to assist them in forming realistic goals and identities. Not to say that realistic goals and identities are any less attractive or challenging than the media’s status quo, but rather that sometimes the best versions of ourselves are the most attainable if we’d only try.
As I left for home with the tomato in my lap and an idea in my head, things seemed a little brighter and a little lighter. Combine my volunteer work with the credit union difference and you have a great thing. And while this melding of two worlds isn’t necessarily revolutionary or mind-blowing, it does provide hope, and if I can make a difference by helping even just one young person improve their life, then that is what I want to do.
*It is important to remember the greater hardships (see these stats) our at-risk youth communities face, but to remain on their same page/s and to acknowledge them as human beings is very important in engagement as well.