It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when Greg Gaines didn’t know a green from a weed.
But that was long before he became farmer-in-chief of Catholic Charities’ award-winning gardening and mentoring program for at-risk youth, where he’s spent more than a quarter of a century helping Flint-area teens learn how to find and keep a job.
Gaines has become such an iconic figure in the program that it underwent a name change to honor his dedication to transforming the lives of young people. What used to be called the Mr. Rogers Summer Gardening Program was officially renamed the Mr. Gaines Gardening PLUS Program (the “PLUS” stands for People Learning Useful Stuff).
Gaines has been the program director for the Flint-area garden program since 1990, when it began with young men who were at risk for academic failure. Today, the program includes young women, too.
“It just grew and grew and grew, well beyond my expectations. These kids have become a part of me and a part of my life,” Gaines said. “I turned the job down three times at first. But if God’s got a plan for you, you’re going to do it whether you want to or not.”
The new name isn’t the only exciting change. With $60,000 from the Ruth Mott Foundation, the program expanded in 2016 to a new location on Flint’s north side next to the North End Soup Kitchen. Program participants transformed what was once a vacant lot into gardens tended by Flint-area teens over the summer.
The Mr. Gaines program was one of the first in 2016 to receive funding under the Foundation’s new Youth priority area. During the Foundation’s community forums, participants repeatedly identified youth employment opportunities and skill development as areas of high need for north Flint.
Under the umbrella of Catholic Charities of Shiawassee and Genesee Counties – and with Gaines’ steady hand – the program provides paid summer jobs and mentorship for high school students while teaching them job skills, teamwork and work ethic. The youth can’t be afraid to get their hands dirty – they plant, grow, harvest and sell produce grown in the Flint area. They also make fresh produce available to area seniors, who often struggle with access to fresh foods.
In 2016, the program included 68 students who were paid $8.50 an hour – much higher than the $1.25 they were paid in the program’s first year. The youth leave the 12-week program with the skills needed to obtain a variety of entry-level jobs, and the ability to cook a meal for their family.
In addition to timeliness and communication, they learn money handling, salesmanship and food preparation – knowledge that could be applicable in a variety of careers.
Expanding the program to north Flint and putting gardens on land that used to have houses wasn’t easy, Gaines said. They had to contend with buried foundations, thick roots and installing an irrigation system, but in the end they ended up with a beautiful landscape that fed the surrounding community.
Neighbors were personally invited to take whatever they wanted to eat from the garden, which grew tomatoes, squash, green beans, cabbage, onions, potatoes, zucchini and peppers.
The youth program started in 1988 in Saginaw under its original namesake, founder Wendell Rogers, who worked for the Michigan Department of Corrections at the time. It merged with Catholic Charities in 2006.
Today, program alumni are scattered across the country. Some go on to related careers in horticulture or farming. Others go a different way – but the lessons from Mr. Gaines and staff still apply.
Nickoy Edwards is a Flint police officer who credits Mr. Gaines with instilling in him the desire to do community service.
“He didn’t even know us but he believed in us,” said Edwards, who went through the program in 2011. “I thank him for all he has poured into us from the beginning.”
Edwards fondly recalls the “Mr. Rogers pledge,” which the students would recite each morning before getting down to business. The self-affirming verse is now called the “Mr. Gaines pledge.”
“I am in the Mr. Gaines summer jobs program. I am somebody. I am important. I can make a difference. Today I’ll do my best to learn and behave. I represent myself, my family, my school and my neighborhood. I am somebody. I am important. I am in the Mr. Gaines summer jobs program. And I WILL make a difference.”
Edwards said he still revisits the pledge from time to time when he feels low. It helped him through tough times, he said, just like the program kept him out of trouble.
“Based on the friends I was hanging around with, I had the possibility of going the wrong way,” he said. “That’s one of the things that program helped me with. First, identify where I was and who I was hanging round with. And second, where I would like to be in the future.”
Rahshemeer Neal, a Lansing firefighter who went through the program when he was 14, said it was the foundation for him to become the hard worker he is today. Every day, mentors drilled into the participants the importance of education, workplace safety and how to find and keep a job, he said.
“You guys can make it too,” he told students at a 2016 program dinner. “Don’t be a product of your environment. To me, I don’t like that excuse. Because I know if I can make it out, you can.”
It’s not always easy. Neal described getting up at 5:30 a.m. and walking to work in the chilly morning hours. Then, by about 10 a.m., tending the gardens got to be hot, sweaty work.
Still, many say the program is rewarding. The youth in this year’s program who were asked to reflect on the experience were thankful for the opportunity.
“Words can’t even explain how much the program has meant to me,” Jasmine Humphries wrote in a handwritten testimonial about the 2016 summer session. “I know I’m not the easiest person to work or get along with, but I am very thankful for the opportunity to have worked with this program for two years.”
Historically, the program has received financial support from a variety of sources, including the $60,000 grant from the Ruth Mott Foundation, which was accompanied by a $40,000 fundraising match that Catholic Charities was able to meet.
Flint resident Omari Byron first went through the program in 2012 before working his way up to being a youth supervisor. It gave him the skills he needed to get a job as a horticulture seasonal assistant at Applewood.
“It helps kids get good work experience and keeps kids off the streets and out of trouble,” said Byron, who hopes to own his own business someday. “It’s definitely a good program for Flint.”