Mutee Algaaffar waters a new strawberry patch he planted with lead gardener Cody Reynolds (in background). (Farida Jhabvala Romero / KQED)
On a sunny day in San Francisco's southeast corner, a group of teenagers are getting ready to plant strawberries and build raised garden beds in a small plot of land blocks away from the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.
Over the last few years, these teens have transformed the weedy yard at the Oakdale Community Center into a small orchard and farm with roaming chickens and beehives.
They've nurtured what once was rocky soil and have grown collard greens, chives and peppers. They've cooked and tasted fresh vegetables or distributed them free to their neighbors. Some have used power tools to build a large chicken coop for the 14 or so resident chickens that lay a dozen eggs per day in the summer.
The gardeners -- some as young as 10 -- are all part of an after-school program run by the nonprofit City of Dreams in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. The organization employs 32 kids from the area as junior gardeners, paying them $35 for completing eight gardening sessions. It's a modest stipend for anyone, but earning the cash gives an air of formality to kids like Zavion Gilbert, 15, who shows up regularly to work.
“It’s kind of like a job but it’s teaching us a lot of stuff, too,” says Zavion, who aspires to become a chef. “I keep doing it because it got me more interested in life and healthy things. I want to work with vegetables and stuff.”
On the day I visited, a handful of volunteers -- U.S. Army veterans -- were teaching Zavion and Dominique Brooks, 12, to drill wooden planks and assemble garden beds. The adult volunteers supervised Brooks and other teens as they cut a plastic sheet and inserted it into the bottom of a garden bed to prevent weeds from growing inside.
Dominique has participated in the garden since its inception over four years ago, and points proudly to the lemon, pomegranate and orange trees that she planted along the edges. A few of the trees are now about as tall as she is.
"The garden is joyful," says Dominique, a middle schooler with long braided hair. "It helps me do more stuff, and it helps me learn. If I go to college and want to know more stuff about plants, I'll already know something because I started gardening at a young age."
She says she likes being in the garden, in part because she considers it safer than hanging out in the streets nearby. She says she has witnessed shootings firsthand.
“One day somebody got shot in front of the garden right there," recalls Dominique, pointing to the street. "We didn't know what to do. We didn't know it was coming."
The Bayview-Hunters Point area struggles with gang violence and poverty. The proportion of residents living at or below 200 percent poverty is 50 percent higher than for San Francisco as a whole.
"When you hang out in the neighborhood, you see the pressure that the families are under to just make it," says Cody Reynolds, 52, lead gardener in the project. "These kids come to us frustrated, upset. They are kids dealing with this violence that, as an adult, I have a hard time dealing with."
Reynolds is an artist who has lived in Bayview-Hunters Point for 20 years. He says most of those years he kept to himself and wasn't deeply engaged with the community. He dreaded the summers, when he says teens would break windows at his warehouse studio.
"I realized they didn't have any activities. They weren't being engaged to do better," says Reynolds.
So he tried a small experiment. An avid gardener for a long time, he would keep his "hands grounded" by tending to plants in pots and tires. One day, a group of teens stopped by to try to sell him a bike. Instead, Reynolds offered them a job: to plant avocado and other trees in the neighborhood. He paid them a small amount out of his own pocket. It was a success.
The experience brewed a dream for him: to turn open spaces in Bayview-Hunters Point into orchards with fresh foods for residents, involving youth. This garden with the teens, at the Oakdale Community Center, is a first big step.
"We are turning a food desert into a food forest. In the Bayview we have lots of sunshine and the right weather to grow everything from apples and pears to watermelon, squash and cucumbers," says Reynolds, while helping Mutee Algaaffar, 10, plant a large patch of strawberries.
"For the kids, this is their nature and you see how they resonate here," he says. "Everyone is a little calmer. It's just a natural place to be."