Inside what was once a cabinet-making business in Spenard, people can find warm, moist air, purple-tinted lights and rows of lettuce, kale, basil and chervil. But there’s another thing growing there — hope.


As the name for the program suggests, Alaska Seeds for Change is about more than just crops. The youth employment project has been a longtime dream for Dr. Michael Sobocinski, who has spent his career counseling homeless kids. Years ago, one boy’s story opened his eyes.


“He shared experiences where he literally was dumpster diving behind 7-Eleven stores and grocery stores to try to find food for his younger siblings,” Sobocinski said. “He wasn’t alone in that experience. I just have worked with so many youth over the years, who have had the experience of growing up with not enough food.”


Now they will be surrounded by it.


The plans are ambitious. At full capacity, this indoor greenhouse has the potential to grow 50 tons of fresh produce a year to be sold to local businesses to sustain the project. A portion of the harvest will go to food banks and other programs that serve those in need.


Sobocinski predicts the young people, who have known hunger and hardship, will embrace the opportunity and use it to better their lives.


Quavon Bracken has been hired to train the teens to grow the seedlings in vertical hydroponic towers. He says the young people will work as a team and make decisions about the operation. Bracken says many of the young people are tired of being ordered around by adults, who often don’t understand their struggles.


“Youth working with youth can have better outcomes than adults working with youth,” he said.


Bracken is 19 and has worked with homeless teens for several years through the Alaska Youth Advocates program. Although he’s never been homeless, he learned very early how a job can make all the difference. He was raised by one parent — his mom, who has physical disabilities.


“There have been times where my mom has been in the hospital for months at a time — and like having a job would be my only source of income,” Bracken said. “I would go out and mow lawns, so I could feed my younger brother and I.”


Alaska Seeds for Change is geared toward those who have aged-out of the state foster care system — trying to survive on their own. As part of the program, youth will be connected to services in the community and time will be set aside for life skills training. Bracken says many of those kids missed out on learning the basic life skills taught in healthy homes, so programs like Alaska Seeds for Change are needed, to help them find their way.


The program, which includes a drop-in center for teens, is a project of Anchorage Community Mental Health Services. Most of the start-up funding has come from the state and the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority. The project is still in its launch phase, but sometime this winter teens will be hired to tend these indoor crops. Initially, Alaska Seeds for Change will hire about 20 workers, who will get paid for 10 to 15 hours a week.


Sobocinski believes the therapeutic value of growing food has already been proven by other youth agriculture programs around the nation.


“It’s preventing mental health problems down the road,” Sobocinski said. “We see this as a critical time. Growing, being nurturing, is healing for any of us.”


KTVA 11’s Rhonda McBride can be reached via email or on Facebook and Twitter.


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