If anyone who isn’t a Michigan Wolverine fan remembers Vincent Smith at all, it’s for being on the receiving end of one of the most vicious hits most of us have ever seen. Jadeveon Clowney absolutely blew him up on a play that was not his fault at all. If you haven’t seen it:
That could have been the end of his story, but ESPN has an article about how he’s working in Flint and Saginaw, two of the most downtrodden cities in the country, to build a community around gardens to provide both fresh food to those who need it and an opportunity for at-risk kids to learn something and improve their lives.
It’s late October in Michigan, and Smith is doing what he can to prep his garden-in-progress for the cold months ahead. The vacant lot he is trying to repurpose sits two blocks from the infamous Flint River, which in recent years delivered lead-tainted waters to the citizens of one of the Rust Belt’s most down-on-its-luck cities. The rest of the street is lined by houses that range from worn but loved to dilapidated. The house that once stood on Smith’s lot caught fire, and the city ordered its demolition several years earlier. He and a band of helpers spent weeks picking pieces of the old house and other garbage out of the ground when they decided last year that it was a good candidate to be turned into a community garden.
The rye is an ideal winter ground cover to keep the soil in place and in good shape to grow food when it’s warm again. Smith scoops a handful from the bucket and scatters them on the dirt. He rakes seed into soil as his long, black dreadlocks bob and bounce against his back…
An hour after planting the winter rye, Smith is riding shotgun in the Pontiac Vibe of his co-director, Sonya Sutherland, on their way to take care of some minor piece of business at the Genesee County Land Bank in downtown Flint. The trip is a regular part of the routine as they try to plow through the endless layers of bureaucracy for their latest project. Together Smith and Sutherland started a non-profit company called Team Gardens, which aims to provide a source of healthy food for neighborhoods that need it most while also engaging at-risk kids and building a sense of community.“He’s got the football player and community outreach part down, and I’m a hippie, so I’ve got that part,” says Sutherland, a fellow Michigan grad who along with her blond dreads and brimming optimism runs their logistics and makes sure Smith and his big plans are kept to some kind of a schedule. She makes sure the trains run on time…
The largest obstacle in completing these types of socially responsible endeavors is burnout, according to Greg Hoffman, a 12-year veteran of navigating the thickets of red tape that often exhaust the best intentions of would-be do-gooders.
“A lot of people get fed up,” Hoffman said. “One of the first things you learn as a community organizer is people will ardently defend the status quo even if a change will help them.”
Hoffman is the community relations director for the Detroit-based Wolverine Human Services, an organization that helps foster children and other kids in need through a variety of programs throughout Michigan. Hoffman, a double Michigan grad and season-ticket holder, learned about Smith’s project through an alumni magazine and connected with him this winter as the Flint project was hitting another road block.
Over lunch at Zingerman’s Deli in February they decided Smith and Sutherland would be a perfect fit for one of Hoffman’s latest projects. The duo spends a few days each week now on Wolverine Human Services properties tending the 5,300 Honeycrisp apple trees they planted with the help of a small crew during a long, breezy day in late April. The majority of them make up an orchard on the edge of a maximum-security facility for foster children in nearby Saginaw.
The plan is for the orchard to serve as a place to engage and teach the children at the facility, a way to connect with the larger community and a source of funding from the 250,000 pounds of apples they are expected to produce annually when the trees reach maturity.
A fantastic story and exactly the kind of thing we need much more of in this country. Flint and Saginaw have been decimated by General Motors pulling out of those cities, leaving mass poverty in their wake. To drive through them is to be overwhelmed by a sense of doom and dread, which got far worse because of the water crisis in Flint. It’s good to see some people stepping up to help. Miles Bridges, the star basketball player at MSU, is also from Flint and he talks constantly about his plans when he makes it to the NBA (he would have been a lottery pick this year but decided to come back for his sophomore season) to come back and work in his hometown to fix some of the problems.