It’s a picture-perfect autumn afternoon, and the SEEDS two-acre urban farm is a hive of activity. As you walk through the whimsically designed gates, the space stretches ahead, a fusion of cozy backyard and childhood wonderland. A sprawling herb garden embraces the top tier of the property and offers up fragrant plants that can be used in culinary recipes, homemade teas, and even medicinal salves. A bare greenhouse patiently awaits winter plantings. The bottom tiers of the farm display tidy rows of vegetables. Beyond, a handmade sign on a fence proclaims, “Chicken Castle,” and hens cluck and peck contentedly around their home. A variety of fruit trees scattered about and newly installed beehives complete the idyllic scene.

The twenty elementary-aged students who participate in the daily after-school program at SEEDS are divided into two groups, each named after a genus of plants. The Alliums are gathered in the vegetable rows learning how to harvest mustard greens. The Brassicas have finished planning out their winter crops (kale, peas, and peppers), and are now roasting peanuts that were pulled up earlier in the afternoon.

Third grader Canaan Parker says that the peanuts are a little burnt, but he still enjoys snacking on them. He has been attending the after-school program at SEEDS for two years now. His mother, Erica, says that he’s always been interested in gardening and even tries to grow things at home on his own, so when he brought a SEEDS flyer home from school and said “Mom, I want to do this,” it just made sense.

Erica says that Canaan “shows himself to be a dynamic child” at SEEDS. He has absorbed cooking and gardening concepts and applies them at home, alerting her when her plants need to be repotted or explaining the importance of seasoning when she cooks. She has also noticed an increase in Canaan’s vocabulary, his expanding social skills, and his taking on of leadership and helping tasks.

“The [academic] impact is tremendous,” says SEEDlings after-school coordinator Herb Thornton. In addition to the cooking and gardening lessons, students receive homework help at SEEDS. One middle schooler recalls how she was able to apply the science of photosynthesis and plant life cycles, which she learned at SEEDS, on a recent science test at school. Thornton has witnessed climbing letter grades and improved reading ability. He embraces the gardening and cooking themes, teaching multiplication skills when crops are being planned out (how many seeds per space per row to plant) and reviewing fractions when students slice up the pizzas they make in the kitchen.

According to executive director Jeff Howell, “[At SEEDS] we can implement so much learning and do it in a creative way where all kids can be successful.” Students sow the seeds, tend the growing plants, harvest the crop, take the food to the learning kitchen, and cook it all into meals or snacks that they share together. And they learn valuable lessons all along the way. “Teamwork, communication, responsibility, work ethic, community – the garden is the vehicle for building youth leadership skills,” says Abby Goodman, the communications and development coordinator at SEEDS. “Having so much space to be outside and the capacity to provide year-long programs is unique and special.”

The SEEDS garden has been an oasis in Durham for twenty-five years. It was originally created to provide food and healthy eating options for the homeless population in the area. It later transformed into a community garden where local residents could rent out space and utilize educational resources to grow their own food to take home. But three years ago, after a long process of conducting focus groups and community listening sessions, “we underwent some big mission changes” says Howell. “We’re not dictating what happens; we’re responding to the community [and] integrating community members onto the board, onto staff, and really sharing a lot of that decision-making power with the community.”

There is a total youth focus now, and the entire property at SEEDS is utilized to promote youth leadership and positive racial identity development, to examine food access and equity, and to create young community change agents. “Everything within our fences is directly given to our youth program,” says Howell.

In addition to their elementary school programs, SEEDS offers an internship program for middle schoolers. Students are gradually given more responsibility, tackling self-directed projects or taking on leadership roles. They also begin learning more about historical and local social justice issues. “[It’s] where we build their independence outside and in the kitchen [and start discussing] how food access and equity affect health and the community we live in,” says Howell.

SEEDS is also working to relaunch their high school program which is set up as paid internships with an emphasis on professional development, thoughtful engagement in social justice and equity conversations, and becoming school and community leaders. Students may not end up in agriculture, adds Goodman, but hopefully they will end up with “the skills and voice to work with a community in need…and can reflect on their time here at SEEDS as the place where their empowerment developed.”

The idea of community permeates the mission of SEEDS, and it’s not just the local neighborhood and participating families that are enfolded into concept of community. In the past year, SEEDS welcomed over 950 volunteers who ranged from local individuals to church and scouting groups. SEEDS also receives compost donations through their partnership with Triangle-based Compost Now.

“We could not do what we do without the local business relationships we have [or] the incredible community support we receive,” says Goodman. “[Additionally] our long-standing partnership with Triangle Community Foundation is absolutely one of the important relationships that allowed us to move into free programming this year.” As a grantee partner with Triangle Community Foundation, SEEDS has received donor-advised funds as well as grants for capacity building and youth program development which have been instrumental in SEEDS’s successful implementation of their mission realignment. Most recently, SEEDS received a $10,000 grant from TCF to fund forty scholarships for this year’s summer camp.

Fourth grader Sonata Robinson was a summer camper and has also been attending the after-school program for over a year. Her family moved to Durham from New York City three years ago looking, in part, for connection. “Being at SEEDS was the first time we really felt at home, had [that feeling of] community,” says her mother Katryna.

Sonata had been attending a DPS after-school program, but her parents grew increasingly frustrated with the experience: homework assistance was not being prioritized and the price was just too high. Katryna started looking online for an alternative after-school program. She laughs as she recalls finally discovering SEEDS on page ten of the search results.

At SEEDS, Sonata is getting “quality attention,” says her father Albennie, describing how Herb Thornton touches base with parents about things going on with homework and at school, and how all the staff is willing to spend time talking to the parents as well. “They’ll talk to you about anything,” Albennie says.

The short story – the Robinson family fell in love with SEEDS. “I could talk about SEEDS forever, and I do,” says Katryna. “People need to know about it.”

The longer story – Sonata now knows how to cook and cut things in the kitchen; she gets to spend time outdoors; she completes her homework; she’s learning about topics ranging from conflict resolution to commerce; she understands the importance of bees and flies within the ecosystem although she perhaps hasn’t quite gotten over her fear of them; and she’s learning that even children can make a difference, says Katryna.

“I think that’s really the driving factor…when we see this whole-child change and development and empowerment,” says Howell. “[SEEDS is] a level playing field for so many of our kids. They aren’t experts [in farming or cooking]. They have to learn. They have to put their guard down and mess up and be okay messing up…Everybody’s messing up and everybody’s learning together [which] allows them to grow in teamwork and community here.”

SEEDS is a nonprofit partner of the Foundation through multiple programs.

Written by Emily Boros