Former Youth Harvest project crew member returns as intern to work with teens

Missoulian article by Keila Szpaller, photos by Tom Bauer, 10/26/2014
Editor’s note
This year, the Missoulian had a reporter and photographer spend time with the Youth Harvest Project of Garden City Harvest, a nonprofit with a mission to build community through agriculture. Formed in 2003, the Youth Harvest Project is a therapeutic work program with a focus on service, and it hires eight to 12 teens each year to work on the PEAS Farm in the Rattlesnake Valley. The PEAS Farm, Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society, is a program of Garden City Harvest and the Environmental Studies program of the University of Montana. It operates on land owned by Missoula County Public Schools and subleased to Garden City Harvest through the city of Missoula.

Hannah Ellison worked in the Youth Harvest Project of Garden City Harvest in 2006. This year, she returned to the farm to do an internship as part of her University of Washington studies in Law, Societies and Justice. Here’s an adapted question and answer with Ellison about her first season with the program and her return this year.

Q. How did you sign on with the Youth Harvest Project?

A. I had left home, and I had been doing drugs and living on the street. We had known Josh Slotnick, director of the PEAS Farm, because my dad had gone to college with him. My dad was considering putting me in foster care and some other things like that. I had been de-toxing in Roundup, and we were passing through Missoula.

Josh said, “Why don’t you meet up with my friend Tim Ballard, who started the program in 2003? Maybe he can help you.” So we met up with Tim Ballard in the Good Food Store. My father and I had a screaming match in the store, and Tim said, “Well, this isn’t going to work.” He took me on a hike in the Rattlesnake and told me about the program. He offered me a position to work and get paid on the farm. And I was ready for that.

Q. How long did you spend with the program? What was it like, and how did it affect you?

A. I did just that one summer. I also worked for Garden City Harvest’s farms on the Orchard Homes garden and at Greg Price’s River Road farm. That summer was magical for me. I had never had my own living area, so I had this apartment room that I was renting. It was the first time in my life where I’d had my own space. It was the first time in my life where I’d been treated by adults like I was someone who mattered, and my work, what I was doing with my hands every day, meant something to the people that were around me. So it was vital to who I am now.

Q. The teens this year talked about how you spent nights in Big Red, the panel truck on the farm. Is that true? Why were you doing that?

A. I was homeless. I lost that room. I was living on my own and putting myself through high school and I wasn’t 18 so I couldn’t sign a lease. I was camping up by the Rattlesnake Creek and sleeping in Big Red when it got cold.

Q. Why did you come back this year?

A. The Law, Societies and Justice program requires an internship. For years, I’d been wanting to go back to the PEAS Farm to volunteer and be a part of it and meet kids and see if I could help. I thought being on the other side of that life, I had something to offer them. The internship fit the criteria of the program because Youth Harvest is looking at harm reduction for these kids instead of just processing them in the system on this conveyor belt. And it was mostly a personal adventure for me. I was ready. The story didn’t end after I got out of the program. Life didn’t suddenly blossom and become this beautiful flower, but finally, I have become my full person. I’m 25. My daughter, Maya, is beautiful and 6. And I felt strong, I felt I could finally be something for someone else instead of just trying to take care of myself.

Q. What was it like to come back?

A. It was kind of weird. I felt like if I had been able to have a little bit more unstructured time with the kids, it would have been different. But every moment was so structured, there was no room for a genuine interaction. It felt strained. But I liked all of them for different reasons, and I was able to engage as a funny friend more than as a mentor. We laughed and bantered and talked about inappropriate stuff, and I think that was valuable to them, too, but who knows.

Q. Did the program have a lasting impact on your life?

A. I was a really troubled person. I was very self-destructive. I was so hurt by the world, and I had been so mistrusted and abused and just hurt, and almost every person I came in contact with wanted something from me. I came to the farm, and it was first of all, beautiful. And I simply worked all day and I made these beautiful relationships with these adults, these college students, and Josh and Ethan Smith, the operations manager, and all of these people who I got to see again this summer. And it was those relationships that were important. They would tell me how good I was doing, how strong I was, and I would look across the fields and know what I planted and when and with who. It was, again, that I mattered. Somehow, I mattered. I was important, and the work I was doing with others was important to them, too. That started a foundation for me for being a person.