• Our Mission

    is to increase the academic and social achievements of low socioeconomic students, and to serve as a resource for parents, educators and all who seek to enrich the lives of children. Read More
  • Our Mission

    is to increase the academic and social achievements of low socioeconomic students, and to serve as a resource for parents, educators and all who seek to enrich the lives of children. Read More
  • 1
  • 2

People in Agriculture

A Monthly Feature from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture
January 2007

How Does Your Urban Garden Grow?

Playing football could have been this man's life work. But one really bad decision changed all that. Now he's helping urban kids plant gardens.

While growing up near Pittsburgh in the city of McKeesport, Rick Sayles believed that sports would be his ticket out of the projects. He was recruited to play football at Penn State – back in the glory days with teammates Blair Thomas, O.J. McDuffie, Troy Drayton, Kenny Jackson, Bobby Engram and Darren Perry, each of whom went on to have successful professional careers.

Rick might have followed a similar path, if not for an arrest for petty theft during his junior year. As a result, he was suspended from school for a year and had to quit the one thing he loved the most – the team.

The blow was softened by the kindness of a total stranger who posted the $5,000 bail. This generous woman invited him into her home, where he lived with her family for the next year. She even got Rick a job working with students at the school where she was a teacher.

Her actions helped Rick realize that his success in life did not hinge on whether he was a football star. What mattered was what he did with his life when football was no longer an option. It was in that moment he recognized he had a different and much more important calling.

Armed with this new awareness and after earning a Penn State degree in psychology, Rick moved forward with his mission of helping other inner–city kids. He wanted to show those living in the same environment that he grew up in, that the cycle can be broken through sports, through education, through other opportunities.

He adopted his roommate McDuffie's philosophy: "We can do this. We can do anything." Starting with only an idea, Rick committed to proving to these kids that they have options to help them better their lives. He began planning a non–profit organization and turned to his former teammates to help get plans off the ground.

Penn's Civilians Educational Organization was officially launched in 2003. Based on the beliefs of the founder of our commonwealth, William Penn, Penn's Civilians strives to inspire leadership, scholarship and service. The organization provides after–school programs to enrich the lives of low-income and transient students from urban areas.

The first schools to benefit from Penn's Civilians efforts were Steelton–Highspire School District near Harrisburg and the State College Area High School. Volunteers and mentors helped breathe life into the program.

Rick also tapped his connections at Penn State to help guide the program and develop the curriculum. As a result of his interest, Penn State Cooperative Extension approached Rick two years ago about working as a 4–H Urban Youth Development Educator in the Capital Region.

Cooperative Extension is part of the University's College of Agricultural Sciences that offers statewide non-formal 4-H educational programs for youth ages 8–18. Projects range from traditional agriculture like dairy or livestock to public–speaking, citizenship and even rocketry. The goal is to develop life skills including teamwork, responsibility and leadership that youth can apply in every aspect of their lives.

Rick has woven together his work with Penn's Civilians with the goals of Extension, which are essentially the same. In a sense, a seed was planted. He developed an urban gardening program that is funneled through 4–H after–school clubs.

Penn's Civilians is funding the garden plots – 4–foot by 8–foot boxes – and the university curriculum to take the materials to the students. Volunteers help teach the club members about gardening – showing how plants grow into food and benefit the environment, and how they can beautify their urban neighborhoods.

Rick coined the program "Carver's Secret Garden" to honor the work that George Washington Carver began in the late 1800's to expand Extension's agricultural mission. There are currently seven 4-H gardening clubs now in place in the Capital region, and while still in its infancy stage, Rick hopes to offer Carver's Secret Garden to urban schools and neighborhoods statewide.

This summer Rick has big plans for his 4–H members and other urban kids. He will oversee the Ag Ventures Camp, a three–day agricultural summer camp sponsored by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA) and Penn State Extension. Students will participate in a series of hands–on activities, workshops and games to learn about agriculture.

Like Penn's Civilians, PDA's Agricultural Education program was launched in 2003 by Governor Rendell. Directed by Dr. MeeCee Baker, the initiative is taking the agricultural message into the classroom.

A Web site was developed – www.marketplaceforthemind.com – to provide a resource library full of information on quality, non-biased references, books, lesson plans and teaching tools that are aligned to Pennsylvania's Science & Technology, and Environment & Ecology teaching standards.

Additional sections provide information on Pennsylvania's colleges and universities offering agricultural related–degrees, continuing educational opportunities, special events listings, exciting hands–on learning opportunities, project ideas, speaking resources and much more.

Less than two percent of Americans are engaged in farming today, causing each new generation to become further removed from agriculture. Through programs such as Carver's Secret Garden, ‘city kids’ can become more in touch with agriculture while developing their own personal life skills.

In his youth, Rick Sayles could not have predicted that he would be planting vegetables and flowers with urban kids instead of playing football for a living. Rest assured, though, his commitment to helping these youth is deep-rooted and his energy will help them grow and bloom.

He can do this. He can do anything.

*Editor's note: To learn more about Penn's Civilians, visit www.pennscivilians.org.

ORIGINAL ARTICLE LINK: http://www.agriculture.state.pa.us/agriculture/cwp/view.asp?a=390&q=143363

Join Our Newsletter

Updates, upcoming events, and great news!

Admin Access