Mar 9th, 2016

Real World Horticulture Education for Youth

Green Workforce in Conservatory

Imagine you’re an inner city high school student offered a job working in your neighborhood, learning new skills that you’ll be able to turn into a career. That’s exactly what the Groundwork RVA Green Workforce team is all about — that and more. The objectives are multifaceted:  urban youth holding a real job, walking to work and getting paid. Making the community a more beautiful place.  Expanding horizons with new experiences  such as taking a field trip to explore what a job in public horticulture might look like. That’s where we come in.

Recently the Groundwork RVA Green Workforce youth visited Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, the Conservatory and the Community Kitchen Garden in particular — to see exactly that.  The horticulture education field trip evolved as part of a natural partnership with Groundwork RVA and the Garden. Our mission, after all, is education, and this teaming up with Groundwork RVA will allow the youth not just opportunities to tour the Garden, but also a chance to experience what it might be like to work here.  Later this spring the group will return for a service learning program and will volunteer while learning technique hands-on from horticulturists. Also, part of the day will be set aside for more formally programmed instruction. Our collaboration is even more of a natural partnership because of a shared connection: Bray Wilkins. Wilkins is the former Groundwork RVA Greenteam leader who recruited the youth for the program, and who worked closely with the youth for the past 2 years. He was recently hired as Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden’s Children’s Garden Youth Program Developer, where he

Youth Program Developer Bray Wilkins and teens

Youth Program Developer Bray Wilkins and teens from Groundwork RVA in Grace Arents Garden.

immediately saw the potential benefits of the two non-profits working together. A third partner is Richmond’s Department of Public Works.

Wilkins explained that before the youth came to Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden they weren’t familiar with horticulture as a profession, or even what a botanical garden was really about.

“They’d never seen anything like this — at all, ” Wilkins said.

Wilkins says he’s seen transformations in many of the youth since starting the program. “One of them said to me, ‘at first my mom made me do it, but now I’m enjoying being outside working.’  To see them comfortable outside and asking questions is something they would never have done in the beginning. There’s a real interest and curiosity now.”

The youth, freshman, sophomores and juniors from George Wythe High School (also known for its Renew Richmond urban school garden), all come from the area around Oak Grove-Bellmeade and Hillside Court. Marvin Battle, a junior at Wythe in his second year of the program says he really enjoyed touring the Garden, especially seeing a pineapple actually growing from the plant. “Green Workforce has taught me a lot as far as knowing what I’m capable of and showing me things I’ve never seen before and never done before, and having a great time with the team.”

Led by Harris Wheeler and Groundwork RVA Executive Director Giles Harnsberger, the Green Workforce students maintain the Oak Grove Elementary School campus and Bellemeade Recreation Center while developing their own landscape maintenance and leadership skills. The youth have also taken field trips to explore landscaping maintenance through several different lenses, from sports turf management to landscaping. Harnsberger explains, “Visiting the Garden fires these kids’ imaginations like few other places in the Richmond area. With the horticulture experience they have under their belt, and the first-time experience seeing Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden’s facilities, the teens re-imagine landscapes in their community. Our role is to help them pursue those ideas, and make them creative owners of their neighborhoods and community centers.”

Wilkins too has seen the impact firsthand.  “After 2 years it is amazing to see the attitude change and the willingness to work hard in a tough outdoor environment. It is truly like night and day to see these students interact with the natural environment. Students shied away from playing/exploring the outdoors at first due to lack of green spaces available to them and not feeling safe outside in their own neighborhoods. Students have reconnected with nature and many of them are planning on pursuing a future career related to the landscaping industry,” Wilkins says.


Jonah Holland is Digital Content Manager at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, where she has worked for 14 years overseeing social media, the blog, and the website. She is also a mom, yogi, open water swimmer, gardener, and seeker. She's been known to go for a walk in the Garden and come back with hundreds of plant photos, completely inspired to write her next blog post.

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