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A South L.A. school is paving the way for more green spaces in underserved communities.

This L.A. school garden isn't just growing fresh fruits and veggies — they're also growing the leaders of tomorrow.

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Dignity Health 2017

In South Los Angeles, there is a 1.5-acre lot filled with bountiful garden beds growing everything from collard greens to kumquats.

On a crisp day in sunny L.A., students from all walks of life are tending to the fresh fruits and colorful veggies. Some are watering newly planted seedlings, while others are gathering jalapeños and kale for the freshest taco ever.

All images via GAP, used with permission.


This lot, called the Fremont Wellness Center and Community Garden, is located at the John C. Fremont High School campus, and it also has a small park, a community health clinic, and a soon-to-be-finished 1,500-square-foot greenhouse.

"It’s a big thriving community" says Megan Laird, the garden and youth program manager. And with so many opportunities all in one space, it's easy to see why.

One reason this green space is flourishing is because of the Gardening Apprenticeship Program, or GAP for short.

"It’s a program where high school youth from the John C. Fremont High School campus can come and participate in a course that trains [them] to become leaders in health, urban agriculture, and civic engagement," says Laird.

Through a 10-week program in the spring and the fall, the students learn about local and industrial food systems, how food justice affects communities, and how they can turn this knowledge into action within the larger community. And, of course, they learn basic gardening skills and environmental science.

"By the end of the 10 weeks, we feel confident that the youth are familiar with not just how the fruits and vegetables are grown on the site, but what they can do with them moving forward," adds Laird.

The project was started by the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust (LANLT), a nonprofit with a mission to promote safer and stronger communities by creating more urban parks and community gardens — something severely lacking in L.A.'s underserved neighborhoods.

The best part? The students are applying the lessons in their own lives.

"The biggest lesson that I have learned during my time in this program has been becoming a leader," writes Elizabeth Castro, a GAP student staff leader, in an email. "I am not as shy as I was before and it has helped me prioritize my education and future."

Other students say that being in the garden has helped them get through tough times in their lives, allowing them to open up about their battles with stress and depression. Some have also spearheaded efforts to partner with the environmental club on campus to collect food scraps for composting and waste reduction. No matter the hurdle, they overcome it as a unit.

"What I love most about working in the garden is that I can work with friends and know that the work we do can be shared with the community," writes Kevin Nagrete, a GAP apprentice leader, in an email.

More than just having loads of fun, the students are also helping expand the program.

GAP regularly invites professional chefs to demo how to use the produce in the garden to make healthy delicious dishes at home. In fact, GAP has seen so much success with their nutrition programs that they're now also partnering with the UC Cooperative Extension to create a new culinary after-school course.

These developments are particularly important given that it can be difficult to access fresh foods in certain areas of L.A. In South L.A., 72% of the restaurants are fast-food establishments. Plus, 90% of the food retailers are small stores that often don't provide healthy alternatives. And if they do, they usually lack the quality and freshness that you'd find in more affluent neighborhoods.

Thankfully, GAP's seed of change is well on its way to growing more green spaces (and even more leaders).

A 2006 UCLA study found that Los Angeles was well behind other major west coast cities in terms of park space. Even worse, a 2016 report done by the LANLT found that less than 30% of the total L.A. population — the majority of which are from low-income communities — have access to parks in their area.

That's why a group of GAP leaders are branching out and becoming involved in a separate program by the LANLT — the Park Equity Leadership Academy. Through this program, the students join other L.A. communities in advocating for more green spaces all around the city.

It's the next big step in their growth as leaders and one that'll pave the way for a brighter and greener future.

If you want to help out their cause, you can do so right here and follow all their progress on Instagram.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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