Girls get busy
A Bayview-Hunters Point program teaches life skills to teenage girls through soil.

By Karen Solomon

EVERY SATURDAY FROM May through December, the sweet, sad sound of a saxophone echoes through the tiny, underattended Bayview-Hunters Point Farmers Market. The Girls2000 booth is one of just a half dozen or so produce vendors in the parking lot near the Bayview Center, on Galvez off of Third Street. The market is small, in the shadow of Quarter Pound Hamburgers, a boarded-up barbecue joint, and a crusty auto repair shop. By comparison to the weekend Alemany Farmers Market or the one at the Ferry Building, it's hardly a bustling scene. Just a handful of minority farmers offering berries from Watsonville or stone fruit from Modesto to a smattering of patrons, all savvy enough to come for the good eats and dirt-cheap prices on fresh produce.

Candice Pierson, 19, is here every week, unloading boxes, setting up tables, and overseeing two to four younger girls as they sell the weekly harvest of locally grown organic fruits and vegetables. Seven years ago, this Palau Street native had "nothing better to do," so she was happy to join the Hunters Point Family's Girls2000 after-school and support-services program in the hope of getting a little help with her homework. She didn't realize until much later that the program would introduce her to vegetable gardening, or that it would plant the seeds that would change her life.

Pierson is a veteran member – and now employee – of Girls2000, a group of female teenage farmers, most of them African American, who tend the only commercial organic gardens in San Francisco. The program was formerly an offshoot of the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG), but it has been functioning independently since 1997. "Our origins are rooted in the organic gardening program. It's the biggest program we have, and it's still our base," says HPF executive director Takai Tyler, who takes pride in overseeing one of the first and only programs to target teenage girls in this part of the city. "Our core philosophy is having youth understand their responsibility to the community and the environment, and part of that is to teach them to be self-sufficient enough to grow their own food and to feed themselves. Part of our job is to nurture them and help them grow."

Through education, Girls2000 is trying to make it easier for the girls to eat better and live better. Amazingly, Girls2000 is the first business, nonprofit or otherwise, to both grow and sell fresh food in this part of town. According to San Francisco's Department of the Environment, before the Saturday market opened, only 5 percent of the food purchased in this area was fresh produce. Furthermore, the small business offers some unprecedented opportunities to the dedicated participants who work with Pierson. They earn a little pocket cash, learn how to run a business, connect (literally and figuratively) with the soil of their community, and get the nurturing and resources they need to stay in school and plan for the future.

Growing esteem

Another benefit is that many of the girls in the program are learning to be more conscious about what they eat, and having this hands-on opportunity can drive home the message of healthy eating more strongly than any food pyramid can. Meg-Anne Pryor, 17, who has been with the program since she was 10, used to work in the garden but has left to pursue more artistic endeavors like painting and sculpture. Still, based on her experience of working with the earth, she's stopped eating at McDonald's, saying, "I'm very proud of myself. It's nasty and bad for you – it's not real food!" She adds, "I try to eat healthy, but it's really hard."

In addition to the gardening and healthy-eating programs, participants also benefit from the pride of ownership and build self-esteem, something often in short supply for girls who live in underresourced communities. "It's hard work, in the hot sun, throwing tools around, and I get tired," young teen LaRhonda Gaines says. But with the air of a woman wise beyond her years, she recognizes that "it helps me with my self-esteem."

Tyler articulates the program's effectiveness this way: "We're working with youth who have experienced a lot of trauma and violence. A high percentage of them have seen somebody murdered, often a family member or close friend. Working with the earth is grounding, it's meditative, it's healing, and it's a way to work things out nonverbally. The girls often talk about the joy they feel when something they've planted grows. Seeing tangible results of their work is experiencing success, and that makes a difference in their lives."

Coveted land

While Girls2000 and the other HPF youth development programs offered in the area – Bayview Safe Haven and the Peacekeepers – are free and open to any youth between the ages of 10 and 18, participation in the gardening program and the farmers market are coveted positions among the group's 50 or so members.

To be accepted, girls must fill out a job application and sit for an interview with "Mama" Silvia Simmons, the garden coordinator, who selects the staff. A spitfire matriarch of the garden for nearly two decades and a community activist, Simmons says, "This is a passion for me – my therapy. I'm able to impart knowledge on these girls that they didn't have the day before. And I can teach them that when you eat better, you think better, and that when you grow your own, you know what's in it. I firmly believe that what goes in comes out."

Applicants who can commit to a position for one year are looking at a potential stipend of $8 an hour for their work, though they are not to exceed 8 hours a week during the school year, or 10 hours a week in summer. Once chosen, the girls learn about environmental stewardship, health issues, how to use medicinal herbs, and basic gardening skills such as weeding and watering.

Interestingly, one youth from each of the neighborhoods is selected to work at the market – a bold maneuver in a community where youths have legitimate fears about leaving their own block. Due to the potential for violence, it's almost inconceivable for teenagers from supertough Bayview-Hunters Point and Double Rock housing projects to come together, but it's even str
anger to think that they can come together peacefully and mission-driven over the nurturing and selling of potatoes and green beans.

In order to stay in the program, the girls must regularly attend school, maintain at least a 2.0 grade point average, and do their homework. "We like to start them with the garden, working with the earth, and from there they have the discipline to graduate and go on to other career training programs in the community," Tyler says.

Girls2000 has two garden centers. The Adam Rogers garden, in Hunters Point, consists of about 35 eight-foot-by-four-foot raised beds in the Garlington housing project. It was a SLUG garden for about 17 years before Girls2000 took it over; about six months ago, the agency revitalized another former SLUG spot, in Double Rock's Oceola housing project, offering a much larger piece of land – roughly an acre – with raised beds and in-the-ground planting of vegetables, herbs, and fruit trees. Both facilities are certified organic, and their soil has been tested for the toxins known to pollute the area.

Going somewhere

In a perfect literary metaphor for the program and the community, neither garden exhibits the neat, orderly, bucolic splendor of an idyllic roadside farm, and yet so much bounty springs from their vines. The planting boxes at Adam Rogers are low on soil, and some are surrounded by grass that has been tattered and dried by the punishing all-day sun. At Double Rock, the gate that surrounds the land is topped with barbed wire, in the hope of keeping out thieves and vandals, and to prevent people from dumping garbage on the site. But when you look closely at the scraggly, struggling plants, you see that green peppers are growing, as are eggplant, cauliflower, bay leaves, and borage, a beautiful purple flower that Simmons says can be used as a cold medicine. There's even a lily (which belonged to a tenant who passed away) planted in one of the containers, making the garden not just a food source and an educational tool but also a memorial and a promise.

On top of the hill at Adam Rogers – which affords a beautiful view of the city – the girls have shovels in their hands, but their "work" seems to have devolved into singing and dancing over a yet-to-be-pulled patch of weeds. Simmons yells, "I just know y'all are working while you're singing!" and hushes the rambunctious girls for a moment, before they return to their performance in the late-afternoon sun. This is learning about the world and gardening at nature's pace, even if the soundtrack to it is Missy Elliot.

Running on an annual budget of approximately $350,000, Girls2000 was recently funded by the Department of the Environment (also the sponsor of the farmers market) but now receives support from the city's Department of Children, Youth, and Their Families. These dollars pay for a community center, located in the Harbor Road housing development, where the girls meet after school for two to three hours of assisted homework time, followed by recreational activities and general hanging out – in an environment that's much safer than the street. Sowing fruits, vegetables, and herbs is the crux of the program, but it's only a part of its mission.

Girls2000 also has use of the homelike administrative offices of the Hunters Point Family – literally a house at Palau and Third Streets that Tyler calls "a neutral zone" – where the girls and boys of any of the agency's programs can drop by the comfortable living room or dining room table for counseling or refuge. There is also a large learning kitchen, which is where the girls come for regular cooking lessons on nutrition, kitchen safety, and how to prepare healthy meals using the produce they grow. On a recent visit, 12 girls learned how to make a chicken Caesar salad that featured lettuce cultivated by their own hands.

And, like Pryor, many of the girls also participate in regularly offered arts programs, such as painting and sculpture classes at the teen-driven Healing Arts Center. The HPF offices are decorated with floor-to-ceiling self-portraits of the girls as African warrior goddesses, designed by the Girls2000 members themselves and created in conjunction with a local artist. And of course, there are periodic, purely fun field trips that appeal to any teen, such as outings to Great America and Marine World, and that don't cost the girls or their families a dime.

More than just an after-school program, the HPF looks at what needs to happen in a girl's life beyond the lesson plan. Program officers visit participants' homes and ask parents what they need to raise smart, strong, independent daughters, and the agency tries to meet those needs on an individual basis, whether that means helping someone get into the right high school or college, or just giving them a ride to a doctor's appointment. (Incidentally, since the program began, every Girls2000 graduate has finished high school, and most have gone on to some kind of college or training program).

As the girls work toward their futures, giving back to the community is always an important goal: The girls maintain a weekly food pantry year-round. During the farmers market season, participating families receive "Carrot Cash" for no-cost produce from the market. And in winter the garden bounty is brought together with pantry's canned and packaged goods.

Back at the farmers market, Pierson's T-shirt reads, "I'm going somewhere better later," and to talk to her and the other Girls2000 members, you believe it. She told me about how, when she first started, she used to like working in the Girls2000 garden, but that now, "I don't like to get dirty. I like to get my nails done." Indeed, she has seen her share of soil, hoeing, weed-pulling, and sweat equity, and she is taking business classes at San Francisco City College and San Francisco State University, is the bookkeeper for the HPF, is the mother of an 18-month-old, and is the weekend liaison for Girls2000 at the farmers market – in short, a model success story. "I'd still pull some green onions if I needed to. But mostly I stay for the staff – they're always helping." In the right kind of environment, apparently, roots can develop pretty deeply.

Other mentorship programs for girls

Center for Young Women's Development: Sisters Rising Through the Sisters Rising program and high-risk, low- and no-income young women can get coaching in job skills, self-support, teamwork, and more while earning a salary, organizing outreach, doing research, and implementing training projects in their own communities. Program trainers offer case management and referral services in addition to tutoring young women in computer proficiency, sexual health, educational planning, public speaking, and conflict resolution. CYWD coordinators help graduates get into schools or long-term jobs. 1550 Bryant, Ste. 700, SF. (415) 703-8800, melanie@cywd

Come into the Sun Mentorship Program The YWCA of San Francisco and Marin offers some R&R for at-risk girls and young women who are rotating through the juvenile justice system. The CITS program pushes girls to achieve their full potential. With a staff of specialized tutors and counselors and one-on-one mentorship, counseling, and community-involvement training services, CITS gives these troubled young women a brighter option in life. Girls complete a photo-journal project with their mentors, and also set academic, career, social, and health goals. 620 Sutter, seventh floor, SF. (415) 776-2739,,

Expanding Your Horizons Women professionals in the fields of engineering, computer science, and research give around 500 middle- and high-school teens and their parents and educators a hands-on look at their own careers. Through these workshops, girls also get tips on maintaining job satisfaction, getting the right type of education, and making other young women aware of similar careers. Mills College is hosting a workshop in March 2006; another will be held in San Francisco this October. For more information about the Mills event, contact Norma McTyer at or (925) 423-8075. For the San Francisco event, contact Marilyn Swartz at

Girls After School Academy For African American girls ages 8 to 18 looking to become powerful women, GASA offers programs developed to enrich and empower. At four locations in the city's Sunnydale housing development and in Visitacion Valley, GASA summer and school-year programs encourage nonviolent problem-solving, gender and cultural pride and awareness, and leadership skills. In addition to substance-abuse education, pregnancy prevention, homework assistance, and sports events, GASA participants are offered computer and videography classes, art training, money management tips, and gardening pointers. The Beacon program, in which 11-to-14-year-old girls can partake in rap music sessions one week and banking classes the next, is run out of Visitacion Valley Middle School. GASA also runs satellite programs at the Village Community Center for girls ages 15 to 20 and at Hoover Middle School. 3543 18th St. Ste. 15, SF, (415) 584-4044,,

GirlSource With programs in everything from employment training to finding paid jobs, GirlSource helps low-income 14-to-18-year-old girls prep for college and gear up for careers while teaching them to deal with housing needs, pregnancy, schoolwork, and more. Three programs offer young women salaried employment: The Technology and Leadership Program helps 24 girls develop skills in computer software and Web tech, conflict resolution, and personal finance through a 15-week, 135-hour stint working on the Web site; the 10-week Community Leadership Program teaches participants to create community action projects and puts them to work on Fo' Real Resources, a resource guide for girls' health; and the four-monthlong Young Women's Speakers Bureau pays 12 young women to produce a speech and deliver it to a live audience. 1550 Bryant, Ste. 675, SF. (415) 252-8880,,

Julia Morgan School for Girls What the average teen girl lacks in art and technology training, students at the Julia Morgan School for Girls, located on the Mills College campus, have in spades. Ever since the middle school opened, in fall 1999, administrators have fostered strong computer science and arts programs, with an after-school Girls' Technology Center open to all East Bay young women and classes in visual arts, drama, music, dance, and art history. Through an interdisciplinary syllabus, students are taught to actively create art. 5000 MacArthur Blvd., PO Box 9966, Oakl. (510) 632-6000,

Oasis for Girls Serving 10-to-20-year-old girls from every background imaginable, Oasis counts among its participants many first-generation Americans and immigrants struggling to get used to a new language and culture while maintaining their traditions. Through free, multicultural- and gender-awareness programs, including an after-school and summer curriculum and paid teen internships, Oasis staff strives to teach these girls leadership, arts appreciation, educational proficiency, and most important, self-esteem. Programs include Studio Oasis, which helps girls acquire an artistic eye through cultural field trips to arts events; Quarterly Career Development Workshops, which offer help with homework and career advice; Think Tank, a drop-in computer lab and mentoring and tutoring service; and Keynote Leadership Circle, where girls can find employment or seek out scholarships. There's also a plethora of programs for the more technologically inclined, including training programs like Digital Dreams and paid work on the Web site 1129 Folsom, SF. (415) 701-7991,,

Techbridge Chabot Space and Science Center developed Techbridge, an after-school and summer program intended to familiarize young women with technology and introduce related careers through field trips, contact with role models, career counseling, and family events and resources. Girls get hands-on training on projects such as building robots, assembling telephones, and doing computer-based work like designing Web pages, learning programming languages, and animation. The more than 15 programs also emphasize leadership development by teaching public speaking and encouraging teamwork. Since its inception in Oakland in 2000, the program has enrolled more than 600 girls from outreach programs in East Bay school districts and Fremont's California School for the Blind. 10000 Skyline Blvd., Oakl. (510) 336-7332,,

Tiffany Hsu