Greenhouse grows inspired young people

Quavon Bracken checks the progress of his favorite plants at the Seeds of Change greenhouse. (Hillman/Alaska Public Media)

A new Anchorage greenhouse is sprouting more than seeds – it’s helping young people develop life skills and improve their mental health. Anchorage Community Mental Health Services recently began the new program Seeds of Change.

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Nineteen-year-old Quavon Bracken walked through the facility’s rows and rows of tall, dangling racks of hydroponic growing towers. Green vegetables and herbs were just starting to poke out through slits the sides.

“My favorite over here is the Jericho Romaine,” he said, pointing to small heads of lettuce. “They’re really green right now.”

Their growth is spurred by powerful LED lights that sway back and forth in front of the plants. When the lights switch on with a loud click, it’s so bright, you gotta wear shades.

Bracken started working with Seeds of Change a few weeks ago. Most of the time he’s a peer outreach worker with Alaska Youth Advocates. Their teen center is now located in the same building as the greenhouse in midtown Anchorage, and the youth workers are helping get the project up and running.

Bracken said he’s been interested in agriculture for a while, and he hopes to work on a farm in Israel sometime soon. In the meantime, working with Seeds of Change is giving him the chance to learn about tending plants – what nutrients they need, how much light. Soon he’ll be helping sell the produce at local farmers’ markets and to restaurants. But the experience is having a deeper impact, too.

“I feel like kind of at peace. Like I can plant some seeds and then you know, think about something that challenges me in life,then just go along planting the seeds. I just feel like I can think a little more around it. Probably all the oxygen that’s being emitted from them,” he said, chuckling.

Those are some of the ideas behind the new nearly $3 million-dollar project.

“That sense of being responsible for life and nurturing it is a really powerful thing,” said Mike Sobocinski, the Chief Operating Officer at Anchorage Community Mental Health Services and one of the founders of the program.

Seeds of Change is primarily targeting young people who have been involved with foster care, juvenile justice, and mental health programs.

“We tend to look at these youth as ‘at-risk’ and what we’re doing here is looking at them as ‘at-promise,’” he said. “You give them the opportunity and you have expectations that they’re going to be responsible and you support them along the way. It really does a lot for your mental health.”

The program supplements on-the-job training with life skills lessons, like apartment hunting and resume building. It will employ up to 20 youth at a time for about 6-9 months each. It’s a transitional program to help the young people get started.

The brightly lit Seeds of Change greenhouse seen through sunglasses. (Hillman/Alaska Public Media)

Seeds of Change was 15 years in the making. Sobocinski began developing the project well before starting his current post, but he said it was hard to find the money and the space to actually pull it off.

“I like to tell everybody that every community mental health center should own a 10,000 foot greenhouse,” but they don’t, he said.

The greenhouse can produce up to 50 tons of fresh produce per year. Most will be sold to fund the project, which should be self-sustaining by the end of the year. A portion of the food will be donated to people in need.

Quavan Bracken said he’s excited to see the first harvest. “I really wanna like go and slice them down. And I want to see them all piled up in one area and see the massive amount we’re gonna have. Especially for my favorite right there, though, Romaine Jericho.”

The plants should be ready to pick in four to five weeks.

Anne Hillman is the healthy communities editor at Alaska Public Media and a host of Hometown, Alaska. Reach her at Read more about Anne here.

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