Standing in the Green Visions garden on Smith Street, I soak up the sun and watch young people weeding, mulching, and watering.
It’s a hot morning already, but everyone is smiling and chatting around the flowers they’re working hard to grow. It’s peaceful. It’s beautiful. And it almost makes me forget my drive through the surrounding JOSANA neighborhood, an area in the northwest quadrant of Rochester that is scarred by the effects of poverty and unemployment.
Green Visions is a project of Greentopia, an organization managing various projects and programs dedicated to creating resilient, sustainable, green spaces in Rochester. The aim of Green Visions was to take the empty, decaying lots in the JOSANA neighborhood and turn them into something beautiful. But it’s the comprehensive approach to making an impact in the neighborhood that makes this program unique. Green Visions is a phytoremediation program: The flowers planted in the vacant lots take toxins out of the soil. It’s also a youth development program: Now in its 3rd year, it employs 15 young people rom the JOSANA neighborhood, providing them with valuable job skills that they can take with them long after the gardens close their gates for the season.
“We started by asking, ‘How can Greentopia be a good neighbor? And how can we do something that gets us involved in the neighborhood, and gets the neighborhood involved in our project?’” explains
Michael A. Philipson, co-founder and chief communications and operations officer for Greentopia.
“I knew I wanted to be leading this program,” Green Visions program director Morgan Barry says. “You look at the low graduation rates for the Rochester City School District ... there’s an aspect of taking care of people when we have an opportunity to.”
For young people in the JOSANA neighborhood, a job with Green Visions is a tremendous opportunity that opens up possibilities they didn’t have before. They work up to 20 hours per week in the garden and selling flowers at the public market, earning a daily stipend. Each employee also receives work force readiness training through the city of Rochester, OSHA training, lead safety training, as well as customer service skills.
“They start out with an empty resume and it’s full by the time they’re done,” Barry says.
Barry and site manager Tiani Jennings recruit employees by walking around the neighborhood with fliers, talking to people about the program and its opportunities. It’s how they found Evan Cooper.
“I was sitting outside on the porch on a hot summer day, when I saw Morgan coming down the street,” Cooper recalls.
“He came with some fliers and told us about the program, the regulations and gave us applications. So I just applied, we had a nice conversation about it, and now I’m here.” Green Visions is more than just a job to Cooper, 19.
“It’s a way to give back to the community, because this was just an empty lot and now it’s giving back flowers. This keeps me out of trouble, it keeps me off the streets because I’m at work, I’ve got something to do,” Cooper says.
If idle hands are the devil’s workshop, as the biblical saying goes, unemployed youth are at risk in the JOSANA neighborhood.
“Consistent work, consistent hours, and consistent pay gets people to a place where they start feeling normal again, instead of constantly being stressed,” Barry says.
It also gives Cooper a plan for the future.
“It’s motivated me more to go to school, because I know if I can go to college and have my certifications from this, I can start my own business. I can start my own Green Visions.” Other staff members Damien Smith, 19, and Dayonna Adams, 18, also are inspired to continue education after they leave the program. Smith plans to go to school for work in construction, and Adams plans to get her GED.
People who work through the program often go on to get their GED or continued education, and land jobs (including 85 percent of enrollees from 2013), say Barry and Philipson, adding that it creates a lot of leaders.
“This does a lot for a lot of people in so many ways that people don’t understand.”-Evan Cooper
Site manager Jennings is one of them. A lifelong JOSANA neighborhood resident, she started out with Green Visions in 2013. By her second year she had gained management experience, enabling her to get another job with Genesee Land Trust, working with children.
Green Visions doesn’t rely solely on staff for success. Early on, Barry knew that in order for the vision to work, he would need complete buy-in from the neighborhood.
“The reality is that it takes a staff to maintain these things,” Barry says. “If the community isn’t involved, it falls into disrepair.”
Barry attends regular meetings for the Charles House Neighbors in Action group, dedicated to the revitalization of the JOSANA neighborhood. He and Green Visions staff help out on other neighborhood projects as well. And the neighborhood gives back to Green Visions. The family across the street lets staff use their water and Wi-Fi connection. Kids come and help out in the garden. Neighbor Robert Stanley lends a hand when he can, grateful for the positive change the gardens bring on Smith Street.
“This is a good thing for the neighborhood. It’s changed the atmosphere around here,” Stanley says. “It keeps the kids out of trouble. We get beautiful flowers. It really is a blessing.”
Green Visions continues to expand; now with three lots and plans in the works to build a greenhouse at School 17, in a partnership that could mean a year-round operation. It’s also evolved into a commercial flower business, selling the blossoms to provide additional funding and sustain the program. The flowers are sold at the Rochester Public Market, Hart’s Local Grocers, and even online through a subscription. Philipson and Barry see a future that includes more lots and more employees.
Walking through the garden with Barry and Jennings, the sense of pride everyone has for this place is palpable. For Barry, it’s the transformation.
“This whole place was in a state of disrepair,” he says. What’s really cool about it is that it makes no sense for it to be here and to be so awesome.”