Summer of Solutions Offers Opportunities to Youth Leaders

Summer of Solutions volunteers build raised beds for the organic garden. Photo: Jennifer Roach

Most students use their summer vacations to sleep in, catch up on TV, and relax. For Summer of Solutions project leaders like Jennifer Roach, summer is just another opportunity to create solutions for the problems in their communities.

Volunteers Jennifer and Pablo pose with garden tools at the Summer of Solutions site in Hartford, Connecticut. Photo: Courtesy Summer of Solutions

Roach, along with co-leaders Claudine Constant and Pablo Baeza, is leading a project to start gardens in Hartford, Connecticut’s Frog Hollow neighborhood, one of 15 Summer of Solutions (SoS) projects across the country.

The SoS project began in the Twin Cities in 2008, when Timothy Denherder-Thomas, Matt Kazinka, Ruby Levine and several other Macalester students used their summer to pursue sustainable energy solutions in their own home. They found a Ford Motor Company assembly planet that was scheduled to close, and focused on converting it into a company that manufactured sustainable, energy-efficient products.

The project was successful, and gave the students a new goal: give others the opportunity to lead similar projects in their own communities. Together they founded Grand Aspirations (GA), an organization that provides youth leaders all over the country with the tools to create green solutions to local problems.

Today, GA connects green-minded leaders and programs with each other, and helps the SoS projects structure and support themselves.

The Hartford Project

GA looks for leaders like Roach who are passionate about finding sustainable ways to support their communities. “In high school I was really interested in sustainability, but I felt pretty disempowered about how I could make the changes I wanted to see,” said Roach. “I felt disempowered because of my age and my experience, but also because the solutions that were offered weren’t really solutions.”

Now, after finishing her first year of college at Pitzer in Southern California, Roach has returned home to Hartford to present her own solution to a pressing issue.

“Hartford qualifies as a food desert,” explained Roach. “This means that it takes an hour and a half and multiple bus rides to get to the nearest grocery store to buy fresh produce. It’s really difficult for most people in Hartford given how far apart the grocery stores are and the typical household income of Hartford being very low.”

With GA’s help, Roach and her co-leaders plan to use vacant lots in the city to start a garden. They are partnering with Hartford Areas Rally Together (HART) and the Somali Bantu Community Development Center on the project.

Local families will work on the garden to produce food and support themselves, and as the garden grows some of the food will be sold at a farm stand. The ultimate goal is for the produce to reach low-income families.

Community Effort

Each member of the garden has something different to contribute. The families working on the garden are primarily Somali-Bantu immigrants who were traditionally subsistence-based farmers, and they will teach the other members how to garden.

A volunteer enthusiastically rakes in the SoS gardens in Hartford, Connecticut. Photo: Jennifer Roach

During the first week of the project, Roach and other participants underwent leadership training that will allow them to handle the administrative duties.

Through the training, participants will gain various practical skills including fundraising, working with the media, developing projects, community visioning and more.

“We’re working with the kids in our group so that each of them can lead trainings for the rest of the group, and after that it’s about finding opportunities for personal growth and leadership development, and practicing these skills in everything we do,” said Roach.

In addition to supporting the involved families, Hartford SoS is working with different partners to involve other members of the community. Among them are Project Genesis and the Central Connecticut Association for Retarded Citizens (CCARC), two organizations dedicated to providing people with disabilities with valuable life skills.

CCARC typically works with older adults. “They have this just beautiful, wheelchair-accessible garden out back,” explained Roach. “They’re interested in developing a more regular curriculum so their staff can use it for one of their group times.” SoS plans to send one or two volunteers to CCARC’s facility to lead a weekly workshop.

The partnership with Project Genesis will focus more on Hartford SoS’ educational goals. Roach and her co-leaders plan to host cooking and urban gardening classes that will encourage the Hartford community to continue the garden project. Project Genesis intends to take advantage of these resources.

“On an individual basis they decide what they want to take part in, whether it’s the cooking demonstration, movie and discussion night, just weeding, or whatever it is we’re working on,” said Roach.

Want to Volunteer?

Summer of Solutions volunteers enjoy an informal dinner together in Hartford. Photo: Jennifer Roach

Roach and her co-leaders anticipate that the project will continue for years to come. Although work officially began on June 20th, they will accept applications at any time. The Summer of Solutions application form is available online.

“We will have participants who are there 40 hours a week. Because of the nature of the program it is not a 9 to 5 schedule, but it is the time commitment of a full-time job. Then we have part-time participants who can only come anywhere from 10-20 hours a week,” explained Roach.

Because GA specifically supports youth leaders, applicants must be between the ages of 15 and 30. To learn more, go to the Hartford SoS or Grand Aspirations website.

If you’re interested in doing similar work in your own community, you can apply to do a Summer of Solutions project on the Grand Aspirations website. Currently, there are programs in Ashland, Chicago, Cleveland, Portland, Corvallis, Detroit, Eugene, Fayetville, Iowa City, Oakland, Pioneer Valley, Raleigh, Twin Cities, and West Virginia.

“It’s not about fighting something or opposing it,” explained Roach. “The idea here is to use existing community strengths, skills and interests to create the solutions we want to see instead of waiting for them, which looks different in every community.”


Alenka Figa


Blue Planet Green Living