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The Bennington Banner
08/11/2010 10:27:23 PM EDT

Piper Hard, 21 months, and her father, Merrick Hard, consider the offerings Tuesday at the Youth Agriculture Project booth at the Walloomsac Farmers Market in Bennington. Randall Moon, a project participant, is at rear.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010 BENNINGTON — Two months ago, Sara Atherton said she would have had a difficult time identifying the vegetables in a large garden behind Mount Anthony Union Middle School.

But since then, the 17-year-old from Pownal and a handful of her peers each have put in 20 hours a week tending to the beds, harvesting produce and selling the vegetables at the farmer’s market — sprouting a new passion for gardening Atherton said she hopes to carry with her throughout her life.

The opportunity is provided by The Tutorial Center in collaboration with Vermont Department of Labor and University of Vermont Extension through the Summer Work and Learn program.

The program, in its fifth summer, is designed to provide education and job training to at-risk and out-of-school youth from 16 to 21 years old, but it also teaches a number of life lessons for the individuals, said Director Katherine Keys.

“A lot of them have never worked before, so this is a first job they can have on a resum√©, and when they leave I write them a letter of recommendation, so it’s sort of a springboard to getting other employment,” Keys said. “We also go to nutrition workshops at the Department of Health to learn about good eating … and we’ve been to the Department of Labor to talk about how to interview for jobs.”

Individuals in the eight-week program get paid by the DOL to work 20 hours a week, and they are also able to take home some of the vegetables that are harvested. Other produce is given to Meals on Wheels and the soup kitchen, and sold at the Walloomsac Farmers’ Market.

“On Tuesdays, they have a table and a tent (at the farmers’ market) and we sell stuff, which is teaching them money management skills (and) customer service,” Keys said.

Students have also gone to local farms to do service projects in the community and get hands-on experience doing labor that is free to the farmers.

As much as the program is meant to give individuals knowledge about gardening and selling produce, Keys said it is also designed to boost their self-esteem and build teamwork skills.

Atherton said she’s worked before, but has never had as much fun at work as she has over the last two months. “I love this job. This is definitely the best job I’ve had … because you get to be outside all day and because of the people we work with,” she said.

The experience has made Atherton want to start her own vegetable garden in the future and do the program again next summer.

Chris Loomis said part of the fun of the summer work for him has been doing the landscaping in and around the gardens and tilling the beds. While Loomis said he doesn’t like eating a lot of vegetables, he said he’s learned a lot about them and has enjoyed seeing the labor he’s put into the gardens transform into the crops they are now. “It’s pretty cool seeing the garden bloom,” he said.

In addition to the garden behind the middle school, the group also tends to crops at sites in Pownal, North Bennington and another location in Bennington.

Keys said after the summer program concludes later this month, a few of the youth will continue working in the gardens for about five hours a week until the crops are all harvested.

In addition to the program based in Bennington, there is a second Summer Work and Learn program in Manchester where The Tutorial Center also has a location.

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com