They say it takes a village to raise a child. Certainly there are challenges to child rearing, and the notion of drawing upon the help, knowledge and skills of others lends itself to a sense of a well-cared for, well-rounded child. But what about an entire community? Can a group of people raise a village?
Meet Darren Chapman.
This summer I was introduced to the Tigermountain Foundation, a non-profit located in South Phoenix that was started by Chapman just a few years ago.
Chapman’s personal plight to growing a community defies all statistics. Though a bright student who received an academic scholarship to college, Chapman struggled with his role within his community. Instead of a career as a lawyer, he chose the gangs that riddled the low-income neighborhoods.
It was during his fourth conviction while sitting in his jail cell that the tides turned. As a kid, Chapman worked in his grandmother’s garden where he felt safe and nurtured. Neighbors would come by to help and that nostalgic sense of community gave him an idea.
Chapman found a small plot of vacant land in South Phoenix that he referred to as the “killing fields,” cleaned it up and planted a garden he called the Beloved Community Garden. He eventually convinced his local gang, the Sewer Boys, to participate and nine months later, they began work on their second garden, Dare to Dream.
What Chapman had was a vision and the motivation to implement it. He knew that the gardens could help grow his community by teaching workplace skills. He knew that something as simple as a garden could have a positive impact on many and disrupt the negative cycle of crime and poverty that plagued the area.
Sam Kelsall is an attorney in Phoenix who started working with Chapman and Tigermountain several years ago. Raised on a farm in Kansas, Kelsall used his farming skills to help grow the gardens and to teach the youth and adults about gardening and sustainability. He knew there was more to it than just planting and harvesting and in 2009, he purchased a Biz in a Boxx to try to teach the community entrepreneurship.
Unfortunately, to put an entrepreneurial program in place required funds and know-how and in June 2012 Kelsall was able to secure a donation from a local credit union. The funds were used to pay for materials and teaching. In addition, each class graduate would receive a $100 loan so that they could rent a 500 ft. plot of land to grow fruits and vegetables and start a business.
In May I got a call from Kelsall asking me what it would take to teach a seven week entrepreneurship program. All he mentioned was the garden and that he anticipated a class of 50 participants who were mostly youth and some young adults. He told me the kids were at-risk youth and many of the adults had criminal backgrounds. June 12 was our official start date. That’s about all I knew.
I’ve lived in Scottsdale for the past 21 years, which is a far stones throw from South Phoenix. Scottsdale is a predominantly affluent area noted for its resorts and recreation whereas South Phoenix, though diverse, has more pockets of low-income neighborhoods and higher crime rates. Scenic-wise, the two areas couldn’t be more different.
Although I’ve been teaching my Biz in a Boxx and SciPreneur programs for years, this one was unlike any other. When I pulled up to the teaching site, Tanner Gardens, a low-income retirement home, I was met with a few “hellos” and a lot of stares from the elderly residents sitting outside in the hot summer sun. As the first class began, people started milling in; young kids in elementary school to senior citizens riding in wheelchairs. There were more adults than kids and I was taken a little off guard especially since I specialize in youth entrepreneurship.
Off the bat, trust was an issue. Although Tigermountain focuses and prides itself on multiracial, multicultural influences, I was still a Caucasian female from Scottsdale. As I spoke and asked the group questions, I was simply met with stares. Engagement was at a complete standstill and I had 13 classes left to teach.
Growing a Community Through Opportunity
As the classes progressed, they got easier. Through the process, I ended up with 40 students ranging in ages from 7 to 87, and an even mix of kids and adults. I began to teach them entrepreneurship in a way that resonated with them and their community. Some fought me on pricing out their produce versus only asking for donations, while others saw the bigger picture and the businesses they could eventually start. They learned how to market their wares, how to strategize and how to reinvest their profits to grow their business. They also learned the importance of their contribution to their community and that it takes a group of people to make it succeed.
Beginning halfway through the program, my students started coming to me with new ideas for their gardens. You could see their sense of empowerment and ownership over what was being given to them. During the last class, their graduation, I gave them their certificates and made business cards for the youth. The local newspaper was there to write the story. They wanted more and I wanted more for them.
A Whole Village Can Grow a Community
My seven weeks working with the folks at Tigermountain was profound. I grew up in a family of volunteers, so lending a hand to a community project was not new to me. But what Chapman has faced and overcome and what he brings to his community is the definition of community.
Since that first small plot of land, Tigermountain has grown and it now has use of about 11 acres of land. Yet, to have Chapman’s vision succeed, it needs an infrastructure that’s sound for growth.
Now I’m involved. I’m working with Chapman and others to create a comprehensive workforce development program that would support the needs of the community and help change the negative environment that has plagued it. Not only will it focus on workplace skills, the beautification of the area, a reduction in recidivism and crime prevention, but educate the community on sustainability and personal health.
So how do you grow a community? One villager at a time.
To read more about the Tigermountain Foundation or to provide support, check out their website at www.tigermountainfoundation.org.
You can also check out Tigermountain’s Indiegogo campaign at http://igg.me/p/247209