FLINT, Mich. — It’s 8 a.m. on a Wednesday in late June, planting season is just starting, but the day is already hot.
No clouds, no sign of cooling off. Everyone can tell it’s going to be a hot one.
Bernie Hatcher looks over the crowd of teenagers sipping water and Gatorade. On paper, they’re here just for a summer job – a way to earn a few bucks and fend off the boredom of idle summer days.
But today, like so many days at this job, they’re getting something extra. They’re getting a lesson in responsibility, in behaving like adults, according to The Flint Journal.
“There was another killing, another young person who lost their life in Flint last night,” Hatcher tells them.
He pauses – either for dramatic effect or just because it’s so hot – letting his words sink in.
“That’s two days in a row,” he continues. “This one was 16 years old. Gun violence.”
The eyes on the young faces follow Hatcher as he meanders back and forth in the covered pavilion. There are about 35 teens gathered at long rows of picnic tables. The message isn’t lost on them. Their ages are the same as some of the city’s homicide victims.
18, 19, 16.
“We just want you to know we are so proud of you,” Hatcher continues. “And what you’re doing here in the Mr. Rogers Program. And where you spend your time when you’re here with us.”
The teens are this year’s staff at the Mr. Rogers Program (Or the “Mr. Rogers Say No Program,” for its emphasis on avoiding bad decisions) operated through Catholic Charities of Shiawassee and Genesee counties. The approximately 90 teens in the program came to it through TeenQuest, a local pre-employment leadership training program.
Part summer job, part life skills boot camp, the program started here 23 years ago with only nine kids, making $1.23 per hour, said Program Director Greg Gaines, who was an early organizer.
“I was just trying to keep the young men from running around in the street,” Gaines said.
The program was launched in Genesee County in 1989 and merged with Catholic Charities of Shiawassee and Genesee Counties in 2006. It is named after founder Wendell Rogers.
Now, the teens make $7.40 per hour and work from 8 a.m. to noon each day. They plant and harvest two gardens in the area: at Ebenezer Ministries on Center Road in Burton and at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish on Coldwater Road in Flint. Then, they sell their crops at the Flint Farmers’ Market on Thursdays and Saturdays. There’s also a culinary program in which a local chef shows them how to prepare some of the produce they grow.
But before any seeds are planted, before any peppers are sold or hands get dirty, each day starts the same. The group recites the Mr. Rogers Pledge.
In a call-and-response fashion, one teen recites a line, the group repeats it.
I am in the Mr. Rogers Say No program.
I am somebody.
I am important.
I can make a difference.
Today I do my best to learn and behave.
I represent myself, my parents, my school and my neighborhood.
I am somebody.
I am important.
I am in the Mr. Rogers Say No program.
And I will make a difference.
After a rainy early summer, the team at Ebenezer finally got all the seeds planted by late June.
Tomatoes, peppers, okra, purple-hull peas, squash, zucchini squash, yellow squash, collard greens, cabbage, beets, carrots, strawberries.
Little wooden sticks mark each row, the name of that row’s vegetable written vertically in green marker.
Lewis Allen II inspects the rows of freshly planted seeds.
“It’s taught me a lot about patience, attention to detail,” the 19-year-old said.
By the next week, though, the group’s patience is tested again.
There has been another heavy rain.
The sign marking “Beets” has a pool of water up to the “S.”
Gaines shows one of the teens how to dig a trench to divert some of the water.
“Now, turn your shovel around and do the other side that same way,” he tells 15-year-old Harold McNeal.
McNeal does as he’s told, and water starts trickling into his makeshift canal. The stench of muddy water lingers in the air.
Nearby, 18-year-old Kyra Horne supervises a younger girl digging.
“Hey careful,” Horne tells her. “We got plants right there.”
In her fourth year in the program, Horne is what’s called a team leader. She helps supervise newer workers and makes a few extra cents per hour.
Team leaders in the program say it’s a good opportunity to get some management experience at an age when they otherwise wouldn’t.
“I can remember my first year here,” Horne said. “My team leader made sure he was giving me a hard time. I would think of it as picking on me. But looking back on it, it really just made me become a better team leader myself.”
After the Mr. Rogers program ends at noon each day, Horne heads to her other summer job, at the Taco Bell on Corunna Road. She graduated from Westwood Heights Hamady High School this year. She’s heading to Oakland University in the fall to study social work.
These days, she has fond memories of her first team leader. The one she thought was picking on her.
“He worked me hard and got me to where I am now.”
Christopher Groce said the job has made him into a better man.
For one, his pants are where they belong.
“This program has helped me stop sagging, really,” the 19-year-old said. “There’s nobody sagging here.”
Groce, like many teen boys his age, used to let his pants hang low. It was the style. He thought it looked cool.
But it was a bad habit, he said. It was immature.
And he’s no longer just a kid walking the halls at Flint Northern High School. Groce is heading into his sophomore year at Eastern Michigan University where he’s working toward a physical therapy degree.
“I try to be looked up to as a leader here,” he said. “I try to be more of a leader, more responsible.”
Jenisha Radford, 17, worked with the Mr. Rogers program for the first time last year.
The Flint teen admits she used to talk back to people. She kind of had an attitude about people telling her what to do.
Then she became a team leader. And she realized being in charge isn’t always easy. She knows now what it’s like to be the recipient of back-talking.
“My attitude has changed a lot,” she said. “(Last year), it was like, you’re going to tell me something and I’m going to say something back.”
For Radford, the best part about the job is seeing the plants grow.
“We planted all the things,” she said, looking over the rows of vegetables. “It’s like, coming from nothing to something.”
By July, the vegetables are ready to sell. This day temperatures reach 95 degrees, but it feels even hotter.
Customers sweat and fan themselves as they roam the Flint Farmers’ Market.
Pat Lamson walks up to a table with a Mr. Rogers program banner hanging overhead. Six of the kids work the front table, which displays vegetables for sale.
Squash two for a dollar. Zucchini 75 cents apiece. Jalapeno peppers $1.25 for a quart. Tomatoes $1.25 per pound.
About a half-dozen other teens work under the tent, weighing produce, counting money, making change. Nearby, roughly 20 more students take a lunch break – turkey sandwiches and chips – waiting their turn at the stand.
Lamson has her eye on the bell peppers.
“Do you have any other yellow or orange over there?” she asks.
Jaylyn Boone paws around at the inventory under the table.
“Oh yeah,” the 17 year old says. “Here we go.”
He pulls out a box of peppers, placing it in front of Lamson, she fishes around, finding three she likes, handing over $2 for three peppers.
“Thank you, guys,” she tells them. “Good luck with the gardens.”
“Thank you,” the group at the table responds.
Just like at the gardens, the teens and adult supervisors all wear red T-shirts and baseball caps with the Mr. Rogers logo.
The teens greet passing customers with smiles and a “Hello, how are you?” Customer interaction is part of their job training.
“I think it’s a wonderful program, said Lamson of Flint. “I love that they’re here. I love that the kids are growing something.”