John Gordon is still learning what’s at stake with his youth program, Boys Grow
Dozens of agitated bees hover around Joshua Anderson’s head and shoulders. The farm manager is standing in a former cattle pasture, in the shadow of Nebraska Furniture Mart. He shifts his weight from one work boot to the other, absently flicking at the ear that got stung when the bees were delivered in June to the Boys Grow farm in Kansas City, Kansas.
“I was wearing red,” Anderson says, “which is apparently like being a Chiefs fan at a Raiders game to bees.”
Two 13-year-old boys are also buzzing. Both are digging into the beeswax that connects a pair of wooden boxes where 60,000 bees live. Prince and Deon are eager to show a farm visitor the honey inside.
“When the bees got here, there was a queen bee in a can and, like, 1,000 worker bees all around the outside,” Prince says. “We just had the box and a can of Raid.”
The regimen is still the same today. Neither boy wears gloves or shows any fear of being stung. Deon’s pith helmet is meant to shield him from the relentless sun, not the marauding bees. On this August Tuesday, the forecast temperature is 104 degrees.
After 10 minutes of labor and a brief chiding by Anderson, who is wary of the bees’ tightening flight circles, Prince holds out the tip of his knife. Thick, amber-colored honey sits in a bead the size of a sunflower seed. A lot of work has gone into this little bit of sweetness.
This is the last day on the farm for 12 boys. They are the second graduating class of Boys Grow, a two-year agricultural entrepreneurship program for inner-city kids. The idea is to teach Kansas City, Missouri, children, a few at a time, a set of life and business skills. The primary setting for these lessons is a small KCK farm off Parallel Parkway, the use of which has been donated by a former rancher. The plot is nestled below a hill blighted by concrete pipes, oversized tires and scarred red cattle fences.
It’s the rough landscape of a startup. Founder John Gordon is ready to drive the three-year-old nonprofit’s white bus up that pitted dirt road and into the limelight.
“I enjoy the dichotomy of life,” Gordon says. On this day, he’s camped out at the Starbucks near 42nd Street and Main. “On the surface, two things that seem very separate can be, in reality, very similar. I look at city kids and farming and think: Why can’t it float?”
This is his unofficial office, the tables often used for business and mentoring meetings while he searches for a more permanent space. He leans in to make a point, and his shoulders bunch under the forest-green polo shirt — the Boys Grow logo visible across the front — that is his daily uniform. Gordon, 35, has a closely trimmed beard, short hair and a muscular physique not far removed from his days playing as a strong safety at Bishop Miege High School. His smile is disarming, a flash of white teeth through a crinkle at the left corner of his mouth.
Growing up only 13 blocks south of this Starbucks, Gordon had the same intensity but, he says, less control. His father was a lawyer, and his mother ran the family business, a furniture-and-design retail operation called Latin American Imports. Gordon was an impatient kid who wanted to get through school fast and learn only what he thought he could use in his life. He was a disciplined martial arts student who couldn’t stay out of fights outside kenpo practice.
“As a kid, I went to a lot of shrinks and I felt boxed in,” he says. “Those clinical settings never worked out. More and more I’ve realized the philosophy here [at Boys Grow] is about what would have worked for me when I was 13.”
Gordon had the first inkling of what would become Boys Grow in Chico, California, in 2008. Gordon was working for a family services agency that brought in troubled youth for group counseling sessions, which included campfires and day outings. He refers to this as his “Lord of the Flies days.”
“There is always stuff to be done on a farm,” Gordon says. “Life slows down, and you have to take a deep breath. There’s responsibility and discipline and dedication. That’s where this idea for a functional, working type of youth farm started.”
When his mother became ill, in 2009, he moved back to Kansas City. He returned to construction sites where a decade earlier, he was probably the only construction worker in the city who split his time on the weekend between modern dance and mixed martial arts.
“Both are such structured things,” he says. “You’re either right or you’re wrong. You’re either correct or incorrect.”
Gordon lost a key supporter when his mother died two years ago. After that, the prospect of launching Boys Grow felt daunting to him. But his own volunteerism would ultimately provide the impetus for his organization. Gordon was named the Big Brother of the Year for the state of Missouri that year, and he met Micheal Lawrence, the CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Kansas City. He pitched Lawrence on the idea of a farming entrepreneurship program geared toward boys from nontraditional or single-parent households. He was going to distill what he’d learned into a two-year leadership academy.
“We’re a mentoring organization, and we saw it as an opportunity to mentor John Gordon as he got the program started,” Lawrence says.
Big Brothers Big Sisters became Boys Grow’s fiscal sponsor, handling and tracking donations and lending legitimacy to the fledgling nonprofit. Gordon attended board meetings and met with senior staff as he developed his own board, adding Jenny Kincaid for her marketing expertise and Heidi Hebert to advise him on accounting. Gordon had hoped to work with 12 boys during the initial year. A round of fliers at community centers and schools netted 11 applicants, who became the first class for Boys Grow. This year, 38 applicants (steered to Gordon by Alta Vista Middle School and Lee A. Tolbert Community Academy) were interviewed in April for the 12 spots.
“In reality, we’re trying to farm entrepreneurs as much as plants,” Gordon says. “We’re trying to unleash a whole new crop on the city.”
A brown streak cuts between the bee boxes and a nearby chicken coop. A terrified rabbit races past chickens pecking at overripe melons as the farm morning melts into afternoon. A larger, faster-moving black blur gives chase — Agadez, Anderson’s dog. The three boys nearest the pursuit cheer on the Rottweiler–golden retriever mix, which is charged with keeping away the wildlife that wanders over from the surrounding woods.
Agadez is named for a northern city in Niger, where the Peace Corps posted Army veteran Anderson five years ago. There, Anderson worked with children to plant fruit trees and millet in an effort to increase protein in the local diet.
“It was a group of kids not that different from these guys, Anderson says. “When they said I couldn’t grow something, I just took the kids and we showed them we could do it.”
After his return to the States in 2008, he slung his mandolin over one shoulder and did the work he’d grown up with in Chillicothe, Missouri: farming. He learned organic practices at the University of California Santa Cruz, spending six months living alongside a 3-acre plot. That led to a stint with the Veterans-Farmer Coalition, where he shuttled from an artist’s co-operative in Tahoe to working alongside former Navy Seals teaching inmates to farm at a Nevada prison. Crops remain like signposts where he’s been: Hopi white corn off a reservation in Santa Cruz, Ali Baba watermelons in Iraq.
He’s been working since April of this year to transform the farming practices at Boys Grow, using transplants from his family farm in Chillicothe and installing a drip-irrigation system. In 2011, the boys spent hours each day hauling 5-gallon buckets of water from a nearby pond.
“If we’re going to change the food system, we’ve got to start with the kids,” Anderson says.
Not far from the end of a row of kale, 14-year-old Cesar sits in a green army-surplus tent seeking out shade after one of the three morning work sessions. Depending on the heat, the boys work 30- to 45-minute shifts as part of a three-hour workday, for which each earns a $25 stipend. Cesar sends some of his savings from his biweekly paychecks to his mother, an accountant in Texas. The rest he keeps in a checking account, with an eye toward a pair of Nike KD4s.
When they talk about Boys Grow, the boys unintentionally parrot Gordon’s phrasing. They extol entrepreneurship. They bring up responsibility and discipline. They are future business-school applicants in cross-trainers, firing as many questions as they are asked.
But they’re still teenagers, and their body language doesn’t always line up with their burgeoning acumen. When conversation slows for a moment, one or two look down and trace slow circles in the dirt with their shoes. But when asked about what Boys Grow has meant to him, Cesar shifts his posture. His eyes come up from the ground, and his mouth puckers slightly as he thinks about why coming to the farm matters.
“I’m a city kid,” Cesar says. “I love the city, the skyline. I never imagined being on a farm far away from the city. But I have four brothers and sisters. It’s always loud in my house. Here, it’s peaceful.”
The only regular sounds on the 2-acre plot are the occasional passing car, a dusty red mower and sharp laughter from a group of boys gathered in the shade of a tree by the creek that supplies the farm’s water.
The farm is the engine behind a serious food-service business, one that Gordon hopes will eventually fund the organization’s operations. To help get there, these second-year participants are creating a signature item from concept to product. Last year, it was salsa; this year, it’s agave ketchup.
In early summer, Cesar was one of three boys who tested more than a dozen recipes with Gordon at a West Side community center. At the end of that process, the entire class picked a favorite, which would be bottled at Original Juan’s on Southwest Boulevard. In addition to providing a portion of the ingredients for the products, the land generates produce to sell at a half-dozen area grocery stores and restaurants. Gordon schedules sales calls, but it is the boys who must present the organization and its products.
“I wanted to create something that kids really do,” Gordon says. “It’s not fluff. It’s not for show. They have to make decisions, and anything they learn, they’ll have to apply directly.”
This year has been an important one for Boys Grow. In February, the organization received its 501(c)3 status and ended its official affiliation with Big Brothers Big Sisters. Anderson now oversees four seasonal employees. And Gordon is committed to finding a piece of farmland within a 30-minute drive of downtown for Boys Grow to purchase by the next growing season. He wants to build a set of greenhouses, designed by Anderson, to allow for year-round farming. He envisions a permanent structure in which mentors would lead classes on public speaking or Web development. It’s about moving from ad hoc to at home, on an organization campus.
But Gordon is still figuring out just what his organization’s role should be in the lives of the boys who graduate. At 15, most can’t find a job — and in the current economy, neither can their parents. Though Gordon believes that he’s teaching them skills to navigate on their own, his instinct is to keep mentoring them after they leave Boys Grow. His model remains Big Brothers Big Sisters, but right now he’s the only big brother in Boys Grow. His concern is compounded because what the boys do after graduation will define the program’s success in the eyes of the community.
In an effort to allay that concern, Gordon tested an apprenticeship program this year with a member of YouthBuild (a program for 17- to 24-year-olds that teaches construction skills in conjunction with GED preparatory classes). He discovered that it was difficult for a teenage boy to act as a supervisor rather than a peer in the program. He has also been in talks with downtown restaurants about the possibility of a three-week culinary summer camp, where Boys Grow participants interested in cooking could learn kitchen skills.
“I know I need help,” Gordon says. “If it’s just me, I’ll be spread too thin.”
It’s a bit after noon on a Saturday, and Cesar stands in front of the Hen House supermarket at 119th Street and Roe in Leawood. His hair is spiked, and he’s wearing a pair of royal-blue Adidas high-tops. He scans shoppers as they head for the front door. When he makes eye contact with someone, he’s ready to talk about Boys Grow.
A deft salesman, he extends his left hand toward a pair of blue tents where five of his fellow program participants are grilling hot dogs and hamburgers from Good Natured Family Farms and selling Boys Grow ketchup and salsa.
“It’s good to see kids do something other than hang,” says Diana Endicott, the farm-to-market coordinator for Good Natured Family Farms. Good Natured has supplied the meat for this cookout; members of the regional growing collective have given Gordon steady advice and support. “This isn’t just about the food. If we support the boys, we get a better community,” Endicott says. “And the kids get to see what happens with a little hard work.”
In four hours, the boys will raise close to $500. Enzo, a 14-year-old with a wicked sense of humor, is in charge of the cardboard ketchup box that is being used to hold the cash.
“I hold a dollar and think about all the things that people did with it,” he says. “You hold that dollar and you’re time-traveling.”
“Sell me,” says a blond-haired woman as she steps under the canopy of the blue tent.
“Well, Boys Grow is a … entrepreneurship,” starts Gabriel, a 13-year-old first-year. He looks at Deon, who moves in to make the save.
“Boys Grow is an organization that helps inner-city kids learn the fundamentals of entrepreneurship,” Deon tells the woman. Two minutes later, she walks away with a burger and a bottle of ketchup.
Another woman approaches, pushing her cart toward the adjacent bench, where Gordon has been watching his six-kid crew.
“I see you on TV all the time,” says the woman, jabbing her finger at the air to accent the last three words. “I see kids who are hungry and in need all the time. You’re doing a wonderful job.”
“I don’t know about all the time,” Gordon says. He flashes that disarming smile.
Gordon kneels down behind the tent to take a quick inventory with the boys and calculate how much they’ve sold over the past four hours. It’s 15 minutes past when they were supposed to quit, but a couple has just walked up to buy a hot dog. Cesar spots them first. He gets their order ready, then turns to his customers and smiles, sunlight winking off his braces.
“Would you like that with Boys Grow ketchup?” he asks.