BELLINGHAM - Every Tuesday afternoon, a handful of at-risk and homeless young adults gather to work on their garden just off North State Street.
Most are in their early 20s and live in one of Northwest Youth Services' transitional housing programs. Many have never had a job.
Their garden is part of Youth Grown, a job-training seed-to-market program for youth in Whatcom County. Northwest Youth Services, the Whatcom Volunteer Center and Common Threads Farm operate the program, now in its second year.
Every Tuesday through the end of September, the youth will work in the garden and sell their produce at a market stand at 1020 N. State St. from 3 to 5 p.m.
William Jackson, 23, started volunteering in the garden in May after deciding he wanted to find a real job.
"I'd never had a job before and I wanted to see how I'd work around other people," Jackson said.
He grew up in foster care and group homes, and said for a long time all he knew was doing whatever he had to do to get money - even if it meant spending time in and out of jail.
When he learned he was going to be a father, Jackson and his girlfriend decided they wanted to do things the right way.
"We started putting in all the footwork, signing up for programs," Jackson said.
It wasn't easy for them. They got sober. They stayed with relatives when they could, but mostly they lived on the streets.
"It sucked because I knew I could get money within an hour hustling, and get my own place, but I knew it wasn't right," Jackson said. "Everything took time."
Working with Youth Grown as a volunteer, Jackson said he's gained confidence in his abilities to find work. He's now living in emergency housing through Northwest Youth Services and on a waiting list for permanent housing help through the county.
Jason Dallmann, the Northwest Youth Services vocational readiness coordinator, said participants work about three hours per week at the garden, harvesting, weeding and selling the produce at the stand.
In addition to working in the garden, the youth participate in team-building exercises and educational activities to build job skills. Earlier in the summer they interviewed local farmers to find out the best ways to market their produce and keep it fresh and on display.
Volunteers teach participants how to cook the produce, so in turn they can give ideas to their customers. At the end of each sale day, the youth count out their till and deposit the proceeds in the Northwest Youth Services office. The money helps pay for the garden's upkeep.
Extra produce picked is divvied up between the participants at the end of the day, and some extra is donated to the food bank. Some local restaurants are looking at including Youth Grown produce in their menu items.
In addition to housing programs, the nonprofit organization offers workshops that teach communication skills and seek to build relationships with the youth.
"Institutions have been hard for a lot of them in the past," Dallmann said. "We're another institution in their mind, and it's hard to build relationships sometimes. But Youth Grown has helped with that."
A lot of the youth are nowhere near prepared to walk into an interview and get a job, Dallmann said.
"Our programs are all about getting them to have fun and feel good about something, which goes a long way in building confidence," Dallmann said.
In addition to the Youth Grown program, Northwest Youth Services is working on a training program called Youth Jobs. The program will place young adults in jobs with local businesses, based on their interests. Northwest Youth Services will pay for the youth to work 16 hours per week for six weeks, and the businesses will provide the work experience.
Jackson will be one of the first participants in the program, which is funded in part by a grant from the Whatcom Community Foundation.
Anyone interested in volunteering at the garden can show up on Fridays between 2 and 4 p.m. for the weekly work party. Additionally, any businesses interested in participating in Youth Jobs can contact Jason Dallmann at 360-734-9862, ext.131.
Reach SAMANTHA WOHLFEIL at email@example.com or 360-756-2883.