In 2010, when John Gordon Jr. launched BoysGrow, a Kansas City-based nonprofit that teaches urban youth about farming and entrepreneurship, he might have had an inkling about the possibilities that his fledgling program might offer. But he surely never could have imagined that just a few years later, BoysGrow would own a permanent 10-acre farm on the outskirts of the city, or that its retail culinary products would be featured in a dozen of Kansas City’s most noteworthy restaurants, markets, and grocery stores. More importantly, how could he have imagined that his program participants — boys ages 14 to 16 — would cite lessons they had learned related to self-confidence, responsibility, teamwork, dedication, discipline, health, and pride, just to name a few.
Planting the Seed
John got the first spark of an idea for BoysGrow while working with at-risk youth as a case manager for a Systems of Care unit in Chico, California. John saw one troubled teen relocated to an urban homestead, where the family raised crops, chickens, and other small-scale agricultural products. John says he watched as the boy completely transformed and quickly gained a sense of pride and self-confidence after taking on more responsibility and succeeding on the farm. And he saw how farming and raising crops and animals offered an intense feeling of accomplishment, responsibility, and connection, all while being quick and easy enough that at least a portion of the results could be achieved in as little as a few weeks.
A few years later, John left California to return to Kansas City. A native to the area and the son of two entrepreneurs, John began contemplating a career path that would enable him to run his own business and give back to his community.
What John had witnessed on that California homestead stuck with him, and as he volunteered at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Kansas City, he thought about developing a program that could deliver those same benefits to urban youth in the area.
As he considered the idea of a farm-based nonprofit, John began to see other benefits he could tie into a program like this. If they could convert the crops they grew into marketable products, the nonprofit would have something to sell — and that would mean teaching youth not only the responsibility of farming but also recipe development, product logo and package design, sales, and marketing.
John’s first task was to find land. He began by locating a metro-area farm that was willing to donate 2 acres of its farmland to the nascent BoysGrow program. Next, John had to find his first class of teens. He recruited via a radio show called Generation Rap on the Kansas City radio station Hot 103 Jamz! (KPRS-FM 103.3) and through a local community group. In its first year, 12 boys participated in the program and created their first for-market product: Salsa Orgullo. BoysGrow was now officially off the ground.
Although the concept for BoysGrow is obviously strongly tied to farming and entrepreneurship, John says he doesn’t necessarily intend for graduates to become farmers or entrepreneurs. Instead, it’s about using the farm and the business as a vehicle to prove to the teens that they are capable and that they can develop the skills they need to do any kind of work. To cite an example, John added: “We engage the youth in every aspect of the business. They see how everything is run. They can look at a salsa or a hot sauce on the shelves and say, ‘I know how that is done.’”
Encouraged by the success of the organization’s first season, John moved forward into year two of the program. The farm they’d used needed its land back, so BoysGrow relocated, transferring its garden beds, tools, and mission to a new swath of donated farmland. While moving locations essentially meant starting over on the farm work, John saw the second-year boys guiding new recruits, a dynamic that cemented his belief in the model he was creating. “Here at BoysGrow, mentorship is a common thread, and some of that is the youth mentoring each other,” John says. “It’s cool to learn new skills, but when you’re able to teach someone else and be a role model, those are real confidence boosters ... especially at a young age.”
Over the next few years, BoysGrow continued to gain traction, although the group remained nomadic, moving from borrowed site to borrowed site each year. Finally in 2014, BoysGrow was able to achieve funding through a donation from Cargill to purchase land, and the BoysGrow farm was born.
Today, classes of 35 to 40 teens participate in two consecutive years of BoysGrow. The boys gain a wide range of experience in their two seasons. First, and perhaps most important, they are employees, and for many of them it’s their first paycheck. With this source of income, the boys contemplate new financial ideas such as saving and spending, consulting their parents about how to use the money, opening savings accounts, and building college funds.
Their day-to-day work at the farm depends on their interests. While they all come together for major tasks like planting, the boys specialize in the areas of most interest to them. Typically, “each youth will be on two of our teams, which consist of harvest team, culinary arts, construction, graphic design, public speaking, animal care, landscaping, and sales teams,” John says. “We do this so each youth can hone in on what it is they want to learn to do, as well as how they want to contribute to the program.”
Each group is guided by adult experts and mentors, and the program has evolved over time to meet changing needs. For example, “when BoysGrow started we didn’t have a construction or culinary arts team,” John says. “We would just cook lunch or build a chicken coop. But after seeing the functional need for these two teams, and their sincere interest in building projects and learning to cook, it just made sense. Now we have professionals who teach these classes, and after two years the young men have a set of skills they can fall back on. Maybe it’s even sparked an interest in a potential career.”
John continually watches for trends in hiring practices and for new skills or opportunities he can present. “We recently started focusing on soft skills,” he says. “The youth learn about skills like time management, team work, conflict resolution, communication, and others, all in real time. ... For us, entrepreneurship isn’t as much about starting a business — it’s more about opening a teenager’s eyes to what is possible.”
Speak For Yourself
In this Q&A, Mother Earth Living chats about the benefits and lessons of the BoysGrow program with founder John Gordon Jr. and several current program participants: 14-year-olds Timothy Hubbard, Xavier Gunn, and Anthony Hooper, and 15-year-old Leroy Grant.
Mel: What do you like most about the Boysgrow Program?
Timothy: The brotherhood. I’ve met a lot of people and I’ve learned a lot. It feels like a second family to me. We have so much fun together.
John: [Addressing the boys] I’m always impressed by how cool you guys are with each other. I’m not sure if a lot of people are like that at your age. ... It seems like you guys honestly support each other.
Xavier: It’s like a family here. We call it a “farm-ily.” Everyone is welcome here. Nobody sits there being grouchy. Everyone is open, kind, and if you’re off-task they’ll help you think straight.
What has Boysgrow taught you about food?
Anthony: I didn’t know where a lot of foods came from, and on this farm I’ve learned there are so many people who have to be involved in growing that food for us as consumers.
LeRoy: I’m helping the world make better choices about the food they eat. ... I’ve learned that I’m very good at working with other people in the kitchen. I thought I didn’t need any help until I came here and experienced a lot of other people in the kitchen.
What has Boysgrow taught you about life?
Timothy: Discipline is a really good thing here. ... I’ve learned I have to take responsibility for myself. We have bucket check to make sure you have what you need. If you don’t have it, you get disciplined. It’s to prepare us for the real world. ... I’ve learned to be self-reflective, how to face my mistakes, and do better than I did before.
Anthony: I went to a public speaking event and spoke to a crowd of 30 people about what BoysGrow was. Sharing what the program is — it’s cool. I also went on a business run. We went out and sold our product; then I saw the invoices, too. I get to see what the business is all about.
Xavier: I chose construction crew because I want to be an engineer, and to do that you have to be able to create something from the bottom to the top. So I thought this would be perfect for me. ... Some of the things we’ve built, I never thought I’d be able to design from scratch.
What’s the biggest thing you’ll take with you from your Boysgrow expierence?
LeRoy: It’s given me a lot of confidence. My life has gotten much better, just being here. Talking to John about business every day, networking with other people. It’s not that hard, so now when I come across a similar task, I know I can do it.
Xavier: It’s making me stronger and it’s showing me I can do things I never thought I could do before. You’re around people who — even with things that seem hard — when they laugh and joke about it, it makes it seem fun, too. And they’ll point it out to me; when I’m struggling, they tell me I need help. There’s more to it than just working alone.
LeRoy: It changed my attitude. I used to be really tense and get mad at everything. When I came here, I learned how to open up to more people. Before the program, I was kind of nervous. After the program, it forced me to try new things to learn about, do, eat. I’m not scared of anything; I’m not scared of trying anything new. This farm helped me learn the basics of life.
You can learn more about BoysGrow, what they do, the products they sell, and how you can donate and support this program.
Former Mother Earth Living Editor-in-Chief Jessica Kellner is passionate about volunteerism, sustainable agriculture, healthy food, and opportunities for youth — and has been incredibly inspired by the leaders and participants in the BoysGrow program.