“There’s no job training without a job,” says Charlie Johnson. The Program Manager of the Lucas County Juvenile Justice System’s Community Integration for Training and Employment Program (CITE), Johnson knows what he’s talking about. He’s looking over the site of the Oneida City Farm, just north of downtown Toledo, a project that, in addition to being a local taste of cutting-edge urban agriculture, is also providing a way for young people to move past their mistakes and learn the skills that will help them through life.
The Oneida farm is a joint project of CITE and Toledo Grows, and it works. It works by giving a chance to work to youth who have passed through the justice system — planting, tending, building, harvesting and dozens of other things that rough-edged city kids might never have imagined doing. With several greenhouses, outdoor plantings, animal pens and beehives, the farm is more than just a place to learn. The plants begin in the greenhouses and end up in community gardens all over the area. The food produced from the chickens and turkeys (some 500 last year) is donated to local food banks. There’s even an innovative “aquaponics” setup, where the water from tanks of fish (also raised for food) is used to fertilize growing plants. A full commercial kitchen is also in the works, where students will learn to cook the food they produce.
“It’s the responsibility of adults to teach the next generation how to sustain themselves,” Johnson says, surveying his young charges as they build raised beds for their crops. “We put tools in their hands and teach them to use that equipment.” But beyond the practical hands-on experience, Johnson emphasizes the teaching of the “soft skills” that young adults will need to enter the workplace — skills like problem-solving, communication and time management. CITE then partners with employers who are willing to hire and mentor the program’s graduates. Local companies like Vistual Management and Ohlman Farm and Greenhouse are already very pleased with their new workers, but Johnson emphasizes that the program is always looking for more companies. He’s intent on producing graduates who will achieve success. Looking at the work being done around him, he says “I expect that they will.”