Many Youth Harvest students call Willard Alternative High home

Campos at Willard HighMissoulian 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.

Skyler Villwock was bullied at a traditional high school for his weight and his speech impediment.

His brother had gone to Willard Alternative High School, and Villwock’s mom recommended he enroll there, too.

“Going to Willard changed our lives. I’m kind of glad my mom knew about Willard,” Villwock said.

This year, Villwock was one of 12 teens who worked for the Youth Harvest Project of Garden City Harvest. Youth Harvest is a therapy and service program that puts teens to work on the PEAS Farm in the Rattlesnake Valley.

Most of the crew members came from Willard this year, and over the course of the season, as they weeded around cabbage heads in the field and bagged beets for the Missoula Food Bank, their school was a frequent topic of conversation. When Karrina Campos first told her dad she wanted to go to Willard, she said he advised her against it, noting the bad reputation of students there.

This year, Campos’ father encouraged her to not work while school was in session so she could focus on her classes at Willard.

As far as many teens are concerned, Willard Alternative High School is a rock.

“Willard is like a family almost,” said Cody Lesh.

***

One morning last week, Cecil B. Crawford stood on a small hand-woven rug on the steps outside Willard at 901 S. Sixth St. W. Crawford, a Native American specialist for Missoula County Public Schools, shook hands with every single student in his morning ritual. “Sometimes, it’s a fist bump.”

“A lot of these guys go through a lot of trauma. A lot of them have never been told, ‘Good morning,’” Crawford said.

He greets them for himself and for them. It makes him feel good, he said, and it allows him to take the temperature of the student body.

“I can tell if a student is having a bad day. I can nip it in the bud right there,” Crawford said.

Just the other day, a couple of parents walked up the steps where Crawford stands on the rug that was made for him by a student. He thought the parents were going inside the building, but they stopped by just to tell him their child had a paper to write, and the student had written about Crawford’s influence.

“This could be done at every school,” Crawford said of his good mornings.

Inside, Campos ate breakfast during her life skills class with Carolyn Grimaldi. The topic of the day was Facebook, and the eight students talked about its pros and cons.

“A con will be people will be misunderstood a lot because there’s no voice inflection,” Campos said.

Campos and Villwock

Grimaldi tells them even if they don’t like Facebook, they can use their knowledge of it as a skill when they apply for jobs. Many companies want to hire people who can run their social media pages, she said.

The students tell her they would rather learn about banking and renting apartments and applying for scholarships. They ask about an absent classmate.

“There was a death in (her) family, so we’ll be really nice to her when she comes back,” Grimaldi said.

***

Early in the season on the farm, Youth Harvest director Laurie Strand Bridgeman talked with the crew in the barn about work expectations. She told them she knew they had attendance and behavior standards in school, and crew member Katelyn Cox chimed in to note it’s harder to pass classes at Willard.

“You have to have your grades higher than at other schools,” Cox said.

There’s also less homework, Campos said. At her other school, she had “all this pointless math,” 64 problems a night sometimes, and at Willard, she can complete her homework in class.

“Willard is awesome like that,” Campos said.

On the farm, she and other crew members talk about cliques, getting bullied and being ignored by teachers – essentially, getting swallowed up by an institution. The alternative school has shortcomings, too, but they appear to be lost on the students.

Every day on the farm, crew members share their highs and lows, and toward the end of summer, Sierra Gehring had school on her mind.

“My high is that school is about to start. Usually, that wouldn’t be a high, but since I’m going to Willard, I’m pretty excited,” Gehring said.