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City Heights Refugee Youth Harvest Plants, Job Skills

16-year-old  Mu Hsu working in the IRC's Youth FarmWorks & Cafe Program garden.
Ebone Monet
16-year-old Mu Hsu working in the IRC's Youth FarmWorks & Cafe Program garden.

A San Diego humanitarian organization is taking a hands-on approach to job training. It is using an old practice to teach teenagers new skills.

It takes place in North Park on 30th Street near University Avenue. There, you’ll find a garden by a busy intersection and the nearly 100-year-old St. Luke's Episcopal Church. The garden or urban farm is worked by refugee youth as they learn about irrigation, pruning and soil fertility.

Mu Hsu is a 16-year-old Crawford High School student. She takes a city bus to get to “The Youth Farm,” which is home base for the Youth FarmWorks and Café Program of the International Rescue Commission (IRC). Hsu and her family are Karen refugees from Burma. She says, there, opportunities for her family didn’t exist.

On Thursday and Saturdays, the teens open the gates to sell what they’ve grown; mint, kale, lettuce and Serrano peppers.

Lettuce gown by the IRC's Youth FarmWorks & Cafe Program.
Ebone Monet
Lettuce gown by the IRC's Youth FarmWorks & Cafe Program.

The urban farm is part of a 10-week paid internship program, where low income, refugee and immigrant teens earn a small stipend and a bus pass. IRC Program Director Anchi Mei says most importantly the teens learn skills to help sustain themselves.

“A lot of our refugee youth have families that are struggling to pay rent so some of the kids just want to work and help mom and dad,” Mei said.

The teens also give garden tours and on Saturdays, run an outdoor cafe. The Youth FarmWorks program director, called “Farmer Robbie,” says these interactions harvest confidence.

Youth Farm Stand Helps Refugee Teens Grow In Community

“We are not necessarily training them in terms of job training to be farmers. I mean as a farm fan I’m not opposed to that. But at the same time it is very much like the soft skills that come with recognizing that it is a loud intersection, and vocally modulating your voice in terms of an older person or a younger person, or working with cash handling skills,” said Robbie Wilcox.

For Hsu she says the communicative parts of the job are difficult for her, but she needs to achieve her goals.

“I want to go to college my dream college is SDSU. I want to become a teacher or doctor. I am still thinking.”

The program is possible in part thanks to funding from The California Endowment, USDA, and CalFresh.

The youth program is just one of the programs under the IRC in San Diego's Food and Farming Program. It provides hands-on and paid work experiences. The IRC's Youth Farm is one of two large community gardens the non-profit manages. The objective is to help the participants gain long-term employment and job skills. Since it started in 2017, 53 low-income youth have enrolled in the program. Participants have a 90% program completion rate.

If you’d like to check out Youth FarmWorks, gates open 4 p.m. - 6 p.m. on Thursday from 11 a.m. - 2 p.m. on Saturdays. Youth FarmWorks and Cafe is located at 3725 30th Street.

San Diego City Heights Refugee Youth Harvest Plants, Job Skills
Listen to this story by Ebone Monet.