Mentorship program works to grow more than a garden

Malyk Rowell spreads the roots of a new tomato plant before planting it in the ground at Fred Alexander Park in Charlotte, North Carolina on Saturday, April 23, 2022. (Joshua Komer / The Charlotte Observer via AP)

Malyk Rowell spreads the roots of a new tomato plant before planting it in the ground at Fred Alexander Park in Charlotte, North Carolina on Saturday, April 23, 2022. (Joshua Komer / The Charlotte Observer via AP)


On a plot of grass outside the fence surrounding Fred Alexander Park Community Garden, a cherry tree is dying and Reggie Singleton knows why.

The bare, brown branches of the tree are in stark contrast to the two peach trees planted beside them, as the smallest fruit spheres sprout under a flowering of green leaves in early spring.

Inside the fence, the 18 young men who are part of the current class at The Males Place are carefully digging holes in the newly tilled soil, adding seeds and transplanting a variety of vegetables in neat rows. They are planting this year’s spring garden.

All this is done following the guidance of Singleton, executive director of The Males Place and a certified master gardener who has studied the agricultural traditions of communities and cultures around the world. Over the past decade, he has taken garden-growing boys near this hectic stretch of Beatties Ford Road to Ghana and Cuba; to Alabama and Washington, DC There they learned about regenerative and expert agriculture from land grant universities.

That’s why Singleton is frustrated because he hadn’t realized before what was going on with the cherry. The solitary tree was planted about 10 years ago and began its steady decline until this year it reached its nadir of bare branches.

“There we learned a painful lesson about that tree,” Singleton says, pointing to its fragile limbs. “It simply came to our notice then. They need two to cross-pollinate. ”

Singleton is not able to give up anyone or anything. He will not cut the dying cherry; it will encourage you to flourish.

“We’ll plant another one,” he says.

The same, of course, can be said of the children and young people with whom Singleton works at The Males Place: she meets with them every week to encourage them to grow and flourish.

The organization began as a reproductive clinic of the Mecklenburg County Department of Health for young people, and its original focus was to distribute information and condoms in hopes of reducing the rate of teenage pregnancy. Singleton joined in 1993 and realized that the young black people targeted by The Males Place needed more than just reproductive health information.

“They say that as I was developing these guys, while I’m guiding them, we needed to give them skills,” Singleton says. “We need to give them skills beyond just saying, ‘Do good, do good.’ Here are some skills that will keep you going for life.

“Because there really can come a time when those who know how to produce food are the ones who eat and their families can have access to clean and healthy food.”

The official statement of the organization’s mission is “a guided journey to manhood,” but it does so in a unique way: agriculture is one of the three main pillars (tutoring and social justice are the others) of its foundation. Many, but not all, children have grown up without their parents being involved in their lives, and older men who volunteer to guide and educate are vital to their success.

In 2009, The Males Place began planting the community garden at Fred Alexander Park. Fifty percent of the time the boys spend with the group is now spent in the garden.

Every Wednesday, they meet to learn life skills and cultural enrichment. And every Saturday morning they are at Fred Alexander Park to work in the garden.

Singleton, 60, grew up in the Charleston Sea Islands, South Carolina, and did seasonal migrant work as a child to help earn money for his family. Throughout his life he understood how working on the land not only teaches self-sufficiency, but also generates a strong sense of community when reward and work are shared. This is what he hopes to convey to the youth of The Males Place.

“It’s more than a garden,” Singleton says. “There is a Hispanic proverb that says that the farmer or the gardener realizes that he leaves the garden more than he plants. And we talk not only about plants, but about relationships and everything else. ”

AJ Simmons began working with The Males Place as an “old man” – what the show calls her mentors – shortly after moving to Charlotte in 2015. The work she did with 12- to 18-year-olds was so complementary to her. work on your master. a graduate in community psychology at UNC Charlotte who wrote her dissertation on how working on the farm can facilitate the development of young people.

Simmons is given the title “mshauri”, a Swahili term for the counselor, when he interacts with the “warriors”, as the guys from The Males Place show are called.

“To grow anything from seed to fruit and bring it to your family?” of Simmons. “There’s a certain level of competition that comes with many of our guys, they don’t get it in many other places.”

Simmons is also eager to teach children “critical and cultural knowledge that they are definitely not receiving in schools,” including African history and recent specific American history of African Americans.

The farm is divided into quadrants, each dedicated to one of the four great tribes of Africa. For the past 13 years, the group has visited Selma, Alabama, to learn about the black vote marches and Bloody Sunday; Washington, DC, to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture; and historically black schools across the area to learn more about those institutions and what they offer. Next year, they hope to travel to Egypt to learn about the agricultural traditions gathered there for centuries.

And Singleton always makes sure that every year the warriors of The Males Place plant cotton in their garden. It is not to use the harvest, but to teach young people what many of their ancestors endured as slaves.

“Many of them were unaware of the history of cotton, not only because of how cotton played a role in creating this wealth gap that exists right now between blacks and whites, but also historically from a cultural point of view, tribulations and hardships. and having to endure the sun and the snakes and being bitten by cotton and having to pick up 100 pounds of cotton a day, “says Singleton. “And just the cruelty of it.”

In 2009, Denzel Ross was a student at West Mecklenburg High School when his mother encouraged him to get involved in The Males Place after meeting Singleton at the health clinic. At first, he was so “so” on the show, but he soon became so attached to work that not only with the garden but to the people he met, that he still offers time with the group whenever possible.

“I’ve learned to share tips, to share positivity because sometimes we’re in a certain situation and it seems like there’s no one else we can relate to,” Ross says. “You want to talk to someone who is closer to your partner. So I try to share some vision, give some positivity and words of encouragement.”

Ross is now 30 years old, has a degree in mechanical engineering and is in the Texas National Army Guard, stationed in Texas. Singleton still labels Ross as a “son” on his phone.

“I’m trying, I think I could say, to reach that level of expectation you’ve seen in me from the beginning,” Ross says.

Adonis Adams is 17 years old and has been involved with The Males Place for the past four years. The last one from Indian Trail’s Porter Ridge High School didn’t know anything about working with plants or gardening until he learned with the program.

“Mom always wanted me to grow a garden, so I researched a little bit about it, but I didn’t really get involved until I got into The Males Place,” says Adams. “So it was just a great learning experience.”

He learned, for example, how much water each plant needs to be watered, and that the most delicious okra are the ones that are harvested early; if you leave them on the plant too long, they become too fibrous and chewy.

“There are a lot of things that a lot of people don’t really know,” Adams says.

This year, the guys at The Males Place are preparing the ground for a handful of raised beds behind rows of seeds and transplants that seniors have helped mark in carefully measured rows. They are planting tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, beans and corn. Several blueberry bushes are clustered in the center of the earthy garden.

There’s also a hibiscus tree that gave Matthew Charity his first sample of hibiscus tea a few years ago. Charity is an elderly man whose 14-year-old grandson Cole Allen has been involved with The Males Place for the past few years.

“It opened my eyes,” says the 71-year-old. “I’m drinking hibiscus tea now.”

Most of what the garden produces goes to program youth and their families, or is offered to nearby seniors or members of the low-income community. Some are sold during the summer months at the Rosa Parks Farmers Market at 1600 West Trade St., where young people also sell fresh produce from partner farmers and learn about entrepreneurship.

And at the end of each fall, its popular cabbage sale helps provide fresh vegetables for holiday dinners.

Charity, however, prefers rapeseed from the garden, if she had to choose from fresh vegetables.

“The rapeseed that comes here,” says Charity, sighing, “oh, it’s just heavenly.”

Varnell Bien-Aime doesn’t want to take full credit for how tasty all the vegetables produced at Fred Alexander Park are, but he doesn’t rule out the possibility that he personally has some sort of effect. When it is the old man’s turn to water the garden, he walks up and down the rows, talking to every green plant that sprouts.

“Hey, you’re doing a great job!” you will tell them. “Come on, grow up!”

“Just words of encouragement,” he says with a laugh. “It’s just weird if it doesn’t work. As long as they keep growing, I’ll keep talking.”

Aside from the superstitious words, Bien-Aime says the effect he has seen The Males Place has on his 18-year-old son Nyjhol and his own life has been transformative. The group emphasizes looking for opportunities to “do good” each week. With that in mind, Bien-Aime himself helped people change the tires on the side of the road and saw Nyjhol become more aware of ways to look for such positive moments on a daily basis.

And then, when they come to the orchard each week, they can appreciate all the work they have done both inside and outside that patch surrounded by vegetables and fruits.

“It’s so quiet,” he says. “That’s where I feel like The Males Place really paid me. Just have another way to get away. Because you can drive this block and turn right and it’s just chaos: get in the car, move around here and back on the road. But you’re out here and it’s just … peace. ”

It’s not always easy, though. It takes a lot of care and attention to make sure everything blooms. Sometimes cherries die. But most of the time, they are able to see the fruits of their labor grow sturdy roots and flourish.

“A lot of people would say,‘ I love farming, I love what you’re doing, ’says Singleton.“ Man, these things are hard. It’s hard. It’s not as pretty as it looks. We are growing more than plants. We are growing men. “

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