Duquesne teens spend their summer cultivating a community garden

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Cynthia Adams, 17, and Yolanda Nelson, 15, both of Duquesne, spent a lot of time together this summer, but they weren't listening to music, watching movies or hanging out at the mall.

Since mid-June, the girls, along with 26 other teens from the area, have spent six hours a day, four days a week digging, building, weeding and planting flowers and vegetables.

"It was hard work, and it was really hot," Yolanda said. "But it's been worth it."

Both girls said they found they liked gardening and planting even though the work was tough. And they are proud of the results of their effort, a community garden on a formerly vacant lot.

Their work was part of the Duquesne Summer Youth Empowerment Program sponsored by the KEYS Service Corps, under the umbrella of the Allegheny County Department of Health and Human Services. KEYS stands for Knowledge to Empower Youth To Success.

The Duquesne program was modeled after a similar community gardening program that has operated in Braddock for the past three years, said Helen Wachter, director of the KEYS Service Corps.

"This type of project answers needs in so many different ways," Ms. Wachter said. "You take a vacant space and you turn it into something beautiful. It changes the way people think about their neighborhood."

The bulk of the work in Duquesne was done in an empty 94-by-50-foot lot at the entrance to the city at Grant Avenue and First Street. City Manager Frank Piccolino said the lot had been long vacant and filled with rocks before the group contacted its owner and got permission to plant a community garden there.

What had been an eyesore now holds raised beds of flowers, herbs and vegetables, along with gravel pathways and brick designs around some of the flower beds.

"Their efforts have really beautified the city," Mr. Piccolino said.

The teens also planted a vegetable garden in several raised beds at the First Presbyterian Church of Duquesne and were planning smaller flower and vegetable gardens for a few homeowners.

The work was done under the tutelage of program coordinator Jessica Schmid and garden coordinator Helen Lee.

The program is meant to teach the participants not only about gardening and beautifying the community, but about the rewards and responsibilities of holding a job.

Each of the program's participants will receive two paychecks for $609 each. For many, they mark the first paycheck they've ever earned; with that came the opportunity for their first bank accounts at the National City branch across the street from the garden.

Yolanda said she is proud to have a savings account in her own name and plans to use some of the money she earned to buy school clothes.

The program ends tomorrow with a block party at the lot from noon to 6 p.m. for everyone involved in the effort, including the teens, their coordinators and others from throughout the Duquesne area who provided materials, services and moral support.

The teens were busy this week building picnic benches for the block party.

In addition to celebrating their success, the program participants will present a video they created on the history of the City of Duquesne.

The garden will be turned over to the community, with hopes that some community organizations and possibly the residents of an apartment building across the street will continue to water the plants. The vegetables will be available for the public to pick once they mature, Ms. Scmid said.

The program was funded with stimulus money and Ms. Schmid said the KEYS Service Corps is hoping for additional funding for a school year program and for a summer program next year.

Mary Niederberger can be reached at mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1512.


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