Layevska Jimenez considers herself “a lifesaver for plants” after recently assisting in weeding, watering, and planting tomatoes, peppers, basil, eggplant, thyme and more at Edendale Grove, next to the Cathedral Center of St. Paul in Echo Park.

Already the 12-year-old Gabriella Charter School student realizes she can make a difference, not only in her neighborhood, but also in the world.

“We were the ones watering plants to keep them from dying,” said Jimenez, among hundreds of area students participating in an April 16 Global Youth Service Day event partnership with Big Citizen HUB and Seeds of Hope, the food justice ministry of the Diocese of Los Angeles.

Global Youth Service Day, established in 1988, is celebrated in more than 135 countries and is the largest service event in the world. It mobilizes millions of young people to improve their communities through service.

This year, it offered an opportunity for Seeds of Hope and Big Citizen HUB to forge “a match made in heaven,” according to Tim Alderson, Seeds of Hope executive director.

“We’ve got gardens, and they’ve got awesome kids.”

Big Citizen HUB is a Saturday youth leadership development and skills building program, uniting youth ages 11 to 26 across Los Angeles County, according to Mario Fedelin, executive director.

It launched in January 2015 with 75 middle school participants and currently aids hundreds of youth, or “big citizens,” in engaging the community and focusing on social change and change in the world, Fedelin told the Episcopal News.

Big Citizen HUB supplied about 400 students at nearly a dozen Seeds of Hope sites across Los Angeles during two weekends of gardening, painting and other beautification efforts, Alderson said. Collectively, the students planted 17 trees and 600 vegetable seedlings.

“Between the trees and the plants, that’s the equivalent of over 75,000 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables from the work the kids did. From the perspective of the recommendation of eating five fruits and vegetables a day, what they planted is enough for 40 people to get their entire supply of fruits and vegetables for a year,” according to Alderson.

“The other thing to note is that those trees, which will easily live 30 to 40 years if we keep them in place, will produce over one million servings of fruit over the course of their lifetime. This is food that goes to our food pantries to help people in a meaningful way. That’s huge.”

In addition to helping to provide fresh, nutritious food for communities of need the event also helped to showcase youth “as powerful, talented, insightful people and the only ones who can and will change the world,” Fedelin said.

“Youth come to us because they have seen things in their community they want to change,” he added. The agency engages them in dialogue with their peers to learn a common civic language, and aids their investigation of and immersion in issues ranging from poverty to the environment.

For example, “we don’t teach them how to create an urban garden. We place them in the middle of people who do the work already. Our students aren’t clients, they’re resources.”

‘More than just a work day’

On April 16, the work was ecumenical and collaborative, manual labor performed in the day’s extreme heat. Yet participating students had “the freedom to be themselves and were having so much fun it was obvious it was more than just a work day” observed Tony Hart, 28, a community volunteer at All Saints Church in Highland Park.

There, about 15 youth helped replace a chicken-wire fence with a more permanent wooden one. The young people laughed and talked while digging holes, positioning and leveling wooden posts and pouring concrete. The fence beautified the grounds and provided a more permanent barrier for protection against unwanted pests, he said.

Others “pulled out the old crops and discarded weeds for later composting and planted new crops for the upcoming season,” he added.

Similarly, efforts at St. Philip’s Church in Los Angeles included planting plum, lemon, orange and fig trees, which in time will help multiply the congregation’s ability to feed the community at “our café, held every other Saturday, the first and third Saturday,” according to lay leader Canon Roy Salmon.

“We hope in the future when the trees bear fruit, we’ll be able to use some of that” for the café, which typically feeds between 65 and 80 people, mostly children. “Not only do we feed them, but we provide good used clothing and packets of personal hygiene articles,” he said.

A 60-plus-year St. Philip’s parishioner, Salmon serves as a volunteer cook, preparing chili, spaghetti, pastas, salads and other healthy meals for the café. The church also hosts a food bank on the second and fourth Saturdays, usually augmented by Seeds of Hope fresh produce. “Now they’re offering a cooking class for people who visit the food bank,” he said.

At the Friendly Friendship Baptist Church in Los Angeles, one of Seeds of Hope’s new ecumenical partners and nutritional program sites, youth minister Nyla Jefferson said the April 16 volunteers helped replant a challenged community garden with beets, lettuce, collard greens, peas, broccoli, cauliflower, red cabbage and other vegetables. They also painted “a soft blue” interior walls at the church annex house she is hoping to convert to a youth and community building.

Seeds of Hope nutritious-cooking classes have also introduced some members of the small, multi-generational African American congregation to new foods that otherwise “they probably wouldn’t have tried,” she said.

“The classes have given them ideas of different ways to prepare the same foods they would eat, not necessarily fried, but sautéed or grilled. It’s introducing them to different cooking skills.”

The youthful presence at St. Agatha’s Catholic Church inspired Kellie Hawkins, who said they learned gardening basics while pulling weeds and preparing the ground for families to adopt plots.

“What I thought was so remarkable was to hear the youth talk about how they wanted to take kale home to make smoothies,” Hawkins said. “One youth inspired me to bring my lunch the following week to work. He had such a simple but fulfilling-looking lunch; Greek yogurt with pistachios and an orange,” added Hawkins, chief operating officer for the National Health Foundation.

“It was great to be inspired by them, that was the greatest benefit. It was a hot day, but they had the stamina and the energy and were excited about it. If I was their age, I’m not so sure how excited I’d be about pulling weeds. They were like, ‘let’s go, let’s do this,’” said Hawkins, 37.

The Seeds of Hope partnerships with a range of churches “speaks to the ecumenical community and how we can all work together and be in partnership for the greater good,” she said. “The work Seeds of Hope is doing is so critical. It should be continued and replicated where possible.”

Seeds of Hope was formed to help congregations, communities, and schools turn unused land into productive gardens and orchards to provide healthy and fresh food in areas of need across the six-county Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. Through garden workshops, nutrition education, and with creative collaboration among churches, businesses, and neighborhoods, the agency works to cultivate wellness for a stronger, healthier Los Angeles.

Youth: resources for change

For students like Crystal Navarro, 12, the Global Youth Service Day was a huge success and great fun.“I loved it,” said the Stella Middle Charter Academy student, who has been involved with Big Citizen HUB since last year.

Big Citizen HUB’s Fedelin said it is the only global day focused on the contributions young people make toward society. It demonstrated not only the willingness of youth to change the world, but their potential to do so, he said.

Already he has received feedback from the teachers of his some of his students who returned to weekday classes describing what they’d accomplished on April 16. “For them to go back into their community and talk about the impact they could have, when they are as young as 12-year-old individuals — that influences people.”

The day began with an opening ceremony and instructional presentations that allowed Navarro to get acquainted with other youth. It ended with a closing ceremony that allowed her to share what she’d learned and experienced.

“There were a lot of bugs,” Navarro recalled of her time digging holes in the labyrinth-shaped Edendale Grove garden project adjacent to the Cathedral Center of St. Paul. There were also peppers, strawberries, basil and tomatoes.

“It was very hot that day and we were all over the garden,” she said. “We were digging up weeds, planting and watering the plants that were already there. It was a very good day. It was fun to see how much we had put together and how we helped with the garden.”

“I loved that day, it was very fun,” she said. “It made me feel that I was helping others to access food when they don’t have any. And although we haven’t gone worldwide, we’re making a difference in our own community, which was big for us, and a beginning.”