Earlier this summer, nearly a dozen teenagers traveled from across the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan to East New York for their graduation day. Instead of entering an auditorium sporting caps and gowns, though, they assembled in an empty lot on Warwick Street wearing boots and gloves. These students are Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) ambassadors for The Nature Conservancy and had spent months planning, collaborating and fundraising to turn this space into an urban community garden.
Now in its 22nd year, the Nature Conservancy’s LEAF program sends urban teens on four-week-long paid internships to preserves across the country. There, they learn career development and do field work with scientists and land managers. According to LEAF mentor Blaze Jones-Yellin, the inaugural ambassadors at the Warwick Garden are the “superstars” of the 2015 summer program. They came home and were given the opportunity to take some of the lessons they learned and apply them in their own neighborhoods.
Jones-Yellin described how the it all came together: “The Warwick Garden project was conceived by a LEAF ambassador Miguel Cruz, who lives in East New York. [He] had a vision for the vacant lot in his community. We started inquiring with NYC Parks GreenThumb (the nation’s largest community garden program) and city government back in December 2015 to see if we could revitalize the space. Once approved, the LEAF ambassadors put together a 5- to 6-month project plan that involved fundraising for supplies, creating a garden design with community partners, event planning for the June 4 community work day, volunteer recruitment from the local community and coordinating an ongoing community stewardship plan with East New York Farms! moving forward. Each part of the process was conceived and driven by the high schoolers themselves.”
After months of planning and coordinating, they broke ground that morning. The ambassadors started the day by clearing weeds and detritus, laying down ground covering and building raised garden beds. That afternoon, Sadatu Usman, community garden manager at East New York Farms!, and a small army of her teens and tween volunteers joined them for even more heavy lifting.
They identified and delegated their tasks including building benches and a storage shed; clearing more junk, weeds and branches from the back of the space; and filling and planting the garden beds. When all was said and done, the ambassadors handed their hard work off to the student volunteers of East New York Farms!, who now count the Warwick Garden as part of their portfolio of more than 30 gardens they maintains throughout the neighborhood.