Urban garden grows peace and conviction for two youth farmers

FORT LAUDERDALE — Rania Saintilma lost a friend to violence this week. Stanley Apollon, 20, her friend and neighbor since Kindergarten, was shot and killed in his home on Monday, Sept. 19, the first day of Broward County’s Choose Peace Week. The irony was not lost on Saintilma, an Urban League of Broward County YouthBuild volunteer. She dedicated her work at the Lindsay Urban Farm that week to her friend, and used the activities and messages in Choose Peace Week to give her strength.

On Monday and Wednesday of Choose Peace Week, the Urban League’s YouthBuilders planted a papaya tree every hour and rang a bell in honor of someone who died at the hands of violence. Dozens of young urban farmers, their family and friends, and residents from the public housing that surrounds the garden participated in the hourly services.

The Lindsay Urban Farm is a Fort Lauderdale Housing Authority community garden located in a blighted area near Sistrunk and downtown. Broward County has the highest rate of crime in the state, and Fort Lauderdale’s central district where the garden is located has the highest rate of juvenile arrests in Florida.

But nestled among the debris of decay, neglect and willful destruction, is an amazing oasis in this otherwise forgotten corner of Broward County. In fact, the entire area is undergoing a transformation and revitalization with construction of new, attractive and energy-efficient low-income housing and more gardens in adjacent properties.

The half-acre garden grows organic herbs and vegetables and donates part of its harvest to the Pantry of Broward. The farm is managed by the Housing Authority with volunteers from the Urban League’s YouthBuild and the Housing Authority’s Step-Up Apprenticeship programs.

Saintilma, 22, has been a part of the Urban League’s YouthBuild Program since June, 2010. She credits the program with a second chance in life. The program gave her the motivation she needed to complete her GED, leadership skills, mental toughness and taught her how to manage responsibility. She has committed four to five hours a day to the two-year program and now has a job with Fed Ex, and a scholarship to attend Broward College to pursue her dream of becoming a registered nurse.

Saintilma also lost a friend to violence about a month ago. “It’s senseless. Pointless,” she said. “I’m glad to be part of the Choose Peace project. I like what it brings to the Farm, and it gives me more purpose today.”

Guests to the garden were encouraged to visit the memorial gate established in remembrance of the victims of violence. Local residents also took away “seeds of peace” to plant at home. They may keep the plants or bring them back after the seeds have sprouted to plant in the main garden.

Urban League’s YouthBuild and the Housing Authority’s Step-Up apprenticeship programs take 18- to 24-year-olds who have multiple barriers to employment, who may have dropped out of school or aged out of foster care, and give them job skills, self-sufficiency and an entrepreneurial spirit.

That spirit led to the creation of the Urban Youth Green Farmers, a small business launched by several YouthBuild Broward participants following their graduation from the social entrepreneur class hosted by the Urban League and taught by The Honey Project.

The Urban Youth Green Farmers help grow, harvest, market, and sell produce from the garden to local residents, restaurants and at farmers markets. Less than one year since the farmers planted their first seeds, the innovative garden is making money and changing lives.

“I’m more comfortable here than in school and I’m learning so much more. I do this in honor of my dad.”

Lives like Brian Bullard’s. Born and raised in the Bahamas, his father was killed in an accident when he was 14. Bullard’s mother decided to move the family to Florida to start a new life. But he didn’t quite fit in his new high school in Fort Lauderdale. “I wasn’t focused and got into some trouble, “ he recalls of his first couple of years in South Florida.

Now 20, Bullard has been in the Youth Build program for eighteen months and has learned discipline and is working on his GED. “I’m more comfortable here than in school and I’m learning so much more.”

“It gives me peace to do this work,” said Bullard. “I feel inner peace and relief. I do this in honor of my dad.”

Bullard feels ready to move on and is looking forward to a move to Boston in a couple of weeks to join his mother who recently relocated. He will complete his GED there.

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