Norfolk Teens With a Purpose (TWP) Gardening Program

By Chris Epes, Associate Extension Agent – Horticulture, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Norfolk, VA

Think of Norfolk, Virginia and you think of a lot of things – unrelated to nutrition problems. It’s home to the world’s largest naval station. Norfolk is military. Located in the heart of Hampton Roads, Norfolk is one of the most important shipping hubs in the world. Norfolk is blue-collar. Norfolk is as urban as it gets in America.

What outsiders may not know is that Norfolk has its fair share, and more, of the kinds of systemic problems that plague urban communities, in addition to essentially being ground zero for sea-level rise. Norfolk faces many challenges. Violent crime, single-income households and nutrition related disease and mortality rates in Norfolk are well above state averages. Not surprisingly, this goes hand in hand with the prevalence of fast food and convenience store-laden neighborhoods as well as food deserts in the area.

In the heart of one of Norfolk’s most underserved areas sits the Vivian C. Mason Center, a community facility occupied by a non-profit called Teens With a Purpose, or TWP:

TWP works to provide area youth with a safe place to cultivate much that they are not fortunate enough to get at home. Traditionally the focus has been on social and emotional engagement, school and job skills, leadership development, and encouraging artistic ability. However, in the last few years the cultivation has turned to plants, vegetables specifically, under the guidance of Deirdre Love, the Executive Director of TWP. In partnership with Mission Continues, Virginia Cooperative Extension, the city of Norfolk and community volunteers, Deirdre has spearheaded the evolution of the vacant, gravel lot across the street from the Vivian Mason Center, into the Safe Creative Community Space:

As of today, the Safe Creative Community Space contains 20 raised beds. Six are permanently planted with pollinator plants and fruit trees, and rest produce an array of vegetable cops year-round. The plants are all managed by the teens in partnership with community volunteers. The bounty will be distributed into the community via the Vivian Mason Center and community events occurring spring through fall. The hope is that community members will begin stepping forward and harnessing them to produce food for themselves.

Deirdre Love’s long-term vision for the space is much greener than the gray, gravel lot that is currently there. Working with Dr. C.L. Bohannon in the Virginia Tech School of Landscape Architecture, TWP is developing a plan for the future of the Safe Creative Community Space that will not only include more production beds and an urban orchard, but also ample park space for relaxing and communing. It will take some maneuvering to mesh this idea with the city of Norfolk’s long-term goal of redeveloping this entire area, currently home to three of Norfolk’s most underserved subsidized housing communities. While Norfolk currently has no public plan in place to execute this goal, the hope is that the Safe Creative Community Space will help serve as a rising tide in the community that lifts all boats, and persists through what many in the community perceive to be a distant notice of eviction from the city.

Only time will tell.