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Growing Positive Experiences

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Garden Project “Earth Stewards” begin working onsite at a farm located on the San Francisco County Jail San Bruno Complex grounds during the kick-off event. Photo by Bob Toy.

Most people’s first jobs either land in the retail or restaurant category, but for 17-year-old Xaire Patrick, her first paying gig is working on a farm on the San Francisco County Jail San Bruno Complex grounds in San Mateo County. 

For the past three years, Patrick has been employed by the Garden Project, a young adult summer program that provides environmentally-based job training and life skills programming. Patrick said with the money she earned throughout her time there, she was able to go on school trips to Italy and Cuba in the past two years.  

“Eventually you have to abide by the rules of society—in order to live, you have to work, so it’s like I’m making a living,” she explained at the Garden Project kick-off on July 5. “It’s a chance for me to do for myself and be able to afford the things I want; things my mom would say ‘no’ to, but also be like, ‘If you had your own money, then you can buy it.’” 

While Patrick and other Garden Project students—dubbed “Earth Stewards”—may enjoy the fruits of their spoils in traveling, new sneakers or getting their nails done, their participation in the program—and the efforts to keep it running—offers a greater opportunity to the San Francisco community as a whole. 

Cathrine Sneed, director and founder of the Garden Project, explains that the program “started as a way to employ prisoners first, then at-risk youth.” 

“Now, we’re working with people before they even get in trouble because this is a prevention program,” she said. “We employ them, we train them, we also provide enrichment education.” 

The Garden Project operates as a “multiple-agency partnership,” backed by more than 25 community organizations donating their time and resources. These partners act as spokes on a wheel to keep the program moving: San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) officers and cadets build relationships and mentor the students, while the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) funds nearly the entire operation. 

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Director and founder of the Garden Project Cathrine Sneed provides instruction during the kick-off event. Photo by Bob Toy.

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(L–R) Garden Project’s Cathrine Sneed with San Francisco Police Chief William Scott and Academy of Art University Vice President of Campus Safety and Lab Resources Mike Petricca. Photo by Bob Toy.

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The Garden Project workers and volunteers ate breakfast together before the program kick-off. Photo by Bob Toy.

In a smaller, yet equally crucial role, the Academy of Art University provides transportation to bring the Stewards to the farm since many of them live in the Bayview-Hunter’s Point area, a 20-minute drive away. When the program first started in 2012, there were only about 50 students signed up, but as enrollment grew into the 200’s, buses became a more essential necessity. 

“[The Academy donating buses] is a service to the program, but it’s also a huge service to the city,” said Sneed. “We work here [on the farm], but the work we do feeds the homeless, seniors and others in need.” 

“The Academy has been here since 1929 and we want to be part of the fabric of the community,” said Vice President of Campus Safety and Lab Resources Mike Petricca. When he started his career at the Academy 12 years ago, his goal was to build relationships with San Francisco’s city offices.

“We don’t just want to be a business or have a school in the city, we want to make the city a better place for everyone,” he said.

The Garden Project grows kale, potatoes, garlic and more on its 15-acre plot to deliver to San Francisco centers such as Project Open Hand, Mercy Housing and St. Gregory’s Food Pantry. Stewards may also be assigned to habitat maintenance and landscaping projects to keep the grounds clean and cultivate a healthy ecosystem around the farm.  

According to Shaquill Stewart, a long-time Garden Project worker that teaches the program’s creative writing class, the ultimate goal is to bring a whole community together and do something enriching for the students.

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Volunteers for the Garden Project included SFPD deputies, sergeants, lieutenants and cadets. Photo by Bob Toy.

“The farming we do [here] goes hand-in-hand,” he explained. “[The high-schoolers] put in the work, but we also provide the enrichment aspects to kids who have probably never been outside of their neighborhood or even just seen what a farm looks like. We just try to [provide] a lot of [enrichment] just to get them thinking about other options.” 

The important lesson here for students is working to not just earn wages, but to also see more of the world beyond their block. Patrick, who lives in East Oakland, said she continues to return to the Garden Project because it keeps her out of the house.

“Community-based programs (like Garden Project) help keep me away from the influences around me,” she explained. “Being able to come out here, I can communicate and work with the police officers and cadets, so when I get older, I have people I can ask for help, or mentors.”  

Sneed likes to refer to the Garden Project as “not just growing plants, but growing people,” which is embedded throughout all parties involved. Many of the SFPD officers—from sergeants to lieutenants to even Chief William Scott himself—attest to the positive impact a program such as Garden Project has on the youth population and the communities that raise them. 

“One of the things I found throughout my career—which is now going on 28 years—is that when you can build relationships and get to know people and people get to know you, you have a better chance of really making a difference for people who need help in their lives,” he said. “This project does exactly that.”