Each summer, Children’s Aid employs nearly 2,000 youth ages 14-20 across New York City through the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP). Jobs at Children’s Aid camps, as well as with other community partners, ranging from social services to local government, have provided youth with their first paycheck and formative work experiences that shape their careers and their futures.
This past summer a group of Children’s Aid SYEP participants had the opportunity to realize a unique summer job experience. They worked aboard Swale, a floating community garden docked on the Bronx River that offered the public free access to fresh medicinal and edible plants. Through a partnership with the city Parks Department and Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice (YMPJ), a youth organization based in the South Bronx, 30 teenagers, many of whom were students from Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, worked as part of Swale’s maintenance crew while it was docked in their South Bronx community.
“They were the ones really running the show,” said Dariella Rodriguez, YMPJ’s director of community organizing and outreach, of her maintenance team.
Shanjida Choudhury, a Fannie Lou graduate who is currently in her first year of college, also helped her younger peers navigate the summer experience as an YMPJ youth organizer. “I didn’t know how many things you can grow on a barge,” she said.
In addition to growing mint, peaches and other herbs and foods, the crew gave tours to visitors both from and outside of their community. They also learned about water filtration systems and solar energy from permaculture experts, both of which were used aboard Swale. “We worked hard to put this together,” Shanjida said. “It was not easy.”
Shanjida and her peers also brought their own expertise to the table when it came to discussing the impact of increasing access to fresh, locally grown foods in their neighborhoods and ways to further engage their Bronx community in food justice projects like Swale. Dariella believes that the summer experience gave her young staff an opportunity to develop a voice in their neighborhood.
“They live right in the area and are most impacted by these issues,” she said. “They are learning to become leaders in their community.”