MEChA giving back through Project Youth Green

Laura Robledo left her birthplace, Michoacan, Mexico, when she was 3-years-old and moved with her family to the United States. As she grew up, Robledo’s mother only spoke Spanish. Her father spoke Spanish and English. As Robledo grew up she spoke English at home. This created a disconnect between Robledo and her mother. A disconnect which wouldn’t be mended until she became a student volunteer.

Students from Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano/a de Aztlan (MEChA), volunteer for Project Youth Green, at the Pacoima Garden to help promote youth and family development services for the community.

“It is about going back to our grassroots and educating our community,” said Robledo, 20, junior political science major and MEChA member.

David Kietzman is the executive director of Youth Speak Collective in the San Fernando Valley, a non-profit organization that offers youth development services in the community and he also started “Project Youth Green.”

“Project Youth Green was started two years ago and we now have 60 gardening plots, a butterfly garden, murals and fruit trees. We also have a volunteer day the third Saturday of the month,” Kietzman said.

Raphael Salcedo, a Pacoima resident and volunteer at the garden said he started bringing his family to the garden to get his kids out of the house and off their phones and computers.

“Gardening is wonderful it teaches you about other Latino cultures. My family has a plot here and it provides an opportunity for youth to interact with other youth,” Salcedo said. “I’m also learning a lot about organic food and it’s making me a better gardener.”

Most of Youth Speak Collectives staff is from the community and more than half attend CSUN, Kietzman said.

“A lot of Latino youth feel disconnected from their parents because there is a language barrier,” Robledo said. “I know I did. Saying something in English and then saying it in Spanish it doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing. This is really confusing as a teen. Some times ‘at-risk’ simply means confused.”

“We do focus on at-risk kids, but everyone is welcome,” Robledo said. “We don’t dent anyone because it benefits everyone (and) we want to get back in touch with the five R’s reduce, reuse, recycle, respect and renew.”

For some students like senior Armando Ruiz, 23, Journalism major with a minor in Chicano Studies the garden means a lot more than just the physical.

“It really is a diamond in the rough,” Ruiz said. “Most people in that community have no access to a space to simply reflect. They’re trying to survive and it helps to tune yourself in to the earth and remembering what life is all about.”

Jeff White, the principal administrative analyst with the Los Angeles Unified School District (L.A.U.S.D), said high schools are sectioned off into local summary reports.

“District two includes many high schools such as Arleta, East Valley, North Hollywood, San Fernando, Sylmar and Van Nuys,” White said. “The summary report shows 26 percent plan to go to a four year college, 50 percent plan to go to a two year college, 9 percent plan to work full-time and 15 percent plan to do something else.”

Ruiz said the more MEChA students volunteer at the garden the more students trust them and want to talk to them.

“I try and talk to them about school and let them know they can go to college, because nobody is telling them these things,” Ruiz said. “We really see a difference in the entire family once they start coming to the garden.”

Sophomore Alex Hernandez, 19, a Chicano studies and graphic design major, said he liked the Pacoima garden so much he proposed CSUN start its own garden to promote the same healthy living on campus as they do in the Pacoima Garden.

“I saw we had this dead space and dry spot on campus and I know gardening is a key element for physical, mental and spiritual replenishment, so that’s why I took the initiative,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez said gardening has brought him closer to his own culture.

“My grandfather was a Bracero and continues to farm in Mexico,” Hernandez said. “This was a part of my culture which I had once dismissed and forgotten about and now with our garden I feel it is connecting me back.”