Growing Hope in Appalachia
A greenhouse run by youths in foster care takes root amid the opioid crisis
Tucked into the mountains of Appalachia, banked on the Ohio River, Huntington, West Virginia, is a city known for coal, oil, steel, and, most recently, the opioid crisis. The state has the highest rate of opioid overdose deaths in the nation.
In 2017, there were 833 drug overdose deaths involving opioids in the state — double the rate in 2010, and three times higher than the national rate. West Virginia also has the highest rate of babies born drug-dependent. Many children become orphaned, landing in foster care, staring down futures without a way out of the cycle of despair. A revolutionary foster care facility is betting a greenhouse can stop that cycle.
Since 1976, Stepping Stones has provided youths in foster care with residential treatment for addiction, along with independent living options for 18- to 21-year-olds aging out of foster care. The nonprofit’s mission has never been more critical.
“Everyone here knows how hard we have been hit by this addiction crisis,” said Susan Fry, Stepping Stones’ executive director. “If you look at which adults end up homeless, jobless, incarcerated, or hopeless, many of them come from foster care.”
Stepping Stones’ commercial greenhouse — the newest tool in their fight for children’s stability and success — is set to be fully operational in March. It contains 20 grow towers — hydroponic vertical farms — each capable of sprouting dozens of different types of vegetables.
“I want to be as much help as I can to kids there now…. The greenhouse is an opportunity to learn job skills and make an income. This is something they can carry on for a lifetime.”
The greenhouse will start out serving 18 young men (ages 12 to 21) in West Virginia’s Foster Care System — who will grow arugula, lettuces, microgreens, mint, strawberries, tomatoes, eggplants, and more. The younger students’ curriculum will align with and support their in-school learning. On any given afternoon, Stepping Stones youths will be in the greenhouse taking care of plants, observing the germination of seedlings, and recording data to support the efficiency of the greenhouse. In the greenhouse’s culinary teaching classroom, children and young adults will learn food handling and safety, prep skills, and nutrition education.
Older youths transitioning into adulthood will learn how to transform the greenhouse into a thriving business. In addition to the art and science of farming, they will be taught how to draft a business plan, how to create partnerships with local businesses and restaurants, and how to develop seasonal growing plans for holidays and special occasions. Marketing, website development, and media outreach will also be in the curriculum. They also plan to develop a commercial greenmarket, with a portion to be donated to the community to help stem food insecurity.
The importance of value-added products will also be stressed; in the culinary classroom, students will work on creating a line of Stepping Stones products such as salsas, pestos, and salad mixes. In addition to working and learning in the greenhouse, all youths receive individual and supportive counseling and life skills coaching.
Through partnerships with local colleges, older youths will be able to transition to a university agriculture or community college program. Fry hopes to see this model replicated across the state and nationally as a way to transition youths in foster care successfully to independence.
The greenhouse and its curriculum were introduced to Stepping Stones by Stephen Ritz, a native New Yorker and founder of the Green Bronx Machine, a nonprofit working in K-12 schools where students learn core subjects like math, history, and science in edible gardens while vegetable farming.
Ritz — whose program serves low-income youths, many of whom are living in foster care or homeless shelters — has seen remarkable results from the Green Bronx Machine, including health improvements that lower the risk of childhood obesity, diabetes, and heart disease; higher test scores; and better school attendance and behavior.
“This is a curriculum that is going to change lives,” Fry said. “If it does for our kids only a fraction of what it has done for Stephen’s, we are going to see a tremendous impact on academics and health.”
The Green Bronx Machine curriculum also focuses on the intangibles, what Ritz calls “passion and purpose” — ingredients for self-esteem and success. “This is the first project of its kind in America that addresses the opioid crisis from a place of healing,” Ritz said. “While the media obsesses on body counts and medications, we have created a holistic entity — inclusive of yoga, cooking, farming, and education — that creates living-wage jobs, fair housing, fresh healthy food linked to workforce certifications, and meaningful college opportunities.”
In addition to greenhouse education and employment, Stepping Stones has broken ground on a village of 12 “tiny homes” — 350-square-foot stand-alone homes, each with a kitchen, living room, bathroom, and bedroom — that will house youths aging out of the foster care system. The homes are on Stepping Stones property in close proximity to the greenhouse. “They can work in the greenhouse and live here, too, and in this way, we create a sense of community and ownership,” Fry explained.
The support of the local community is built into these small houses; the homes were designed by local high school students, with materials paid for by Cabell Huntington Hospital and a local Toyota manufacturing plant, and two of the homes were constructed by inmates enrolled in the state’s Office of Diversion and Transition. “It’s an opportunity for these inmates to not only earn a trade but to give back,” Fry said. “And they are giving back to young men who could follow their footsteps to prison.”
Andre Smith could have been one of them. Now 19 years old, he has been in foster care since he was 13 and came to Stepping Stones two years ago. “I had no family or friends to count on or talk to when I came to Stepping Stones,” he said. “They became that family that I don’t have. They are the people I can rely on and share what is going on with me.”
Smith, who works in the greenhouse, is now a student at Mountwest Community College studying business administration. “I want to be as much help as I can to kids there now,” he said. “Some of them get discouraged and don’t have a lot of hope. I know what they are going through. I want to tell my story and help them. The greenhouse is an opportunity to learn job skills and make an income. This is something they can carry on for a lifetime.”