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Residents cultivate job prospects at new urban farm in North Lawndale

Joan Hopkins, coordinator at Windy City Harvest Corps, stands at the intersection of Ogden and Central Park avenues. Hopkins grew up across the intersection from where she currently works. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

Joan Hopkins gave a tour of the newly opened Farm on Ogden facility to prospective employees in the North Lawndale neighborhood last week. She shouted expectations over the loud refrigeration systems while the group of prospects huddled around her.

Hopkins was genuine in her commitment to helping them grow professionally — but also showed she has little tolerance for people who didn’t come to work.

“This is a real job,” Hopkins said. “Individuals get paid bi-weekly, it’s full-time and manual labor. This is a real job.”

Video by Colin Boyle | Residents speak on Farm on Ogden following an info session for prospective members on Monday, June 25, 20

Hopkins is the Harvest Corps coordinator for Windy City Harvest, an urban agricultural program of the Chicago Botanic Garden that manages Farm on Ogden. Hopkins works with organizations around Chicago to bring formerly incarcerated people and veterans into the Windy City Harvest Corps program. The program provides transitional-job training in urban agriculture, food services and job-placement support.

The Farm on Ogden is a collaborative project between the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Lawndale Christian Health Center promoting healthy food habits in the North Lawndale neighborhood.

The 20,000-square-foot facility says it will provide training to more than 100 people in its first year. It will also aggregate more than 177,000 pounds of produce annually, including 14,000 pounds of tilapia, 33,000 pounds of produce from the Lawndale location and 130,000 pounds of produce from 12 other urban farms.

Farm on Ogden on Monday, June 25, 2018. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times
Farm on Ogden on Monday, June 25, 2018. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

Hopkins grew up across the street from the garden in North Lawndale and sees it as a means of giving back to the community. Though she is no longer living in the neighborhood, she said she wants to be selfless in her attempt to help others with barriers to employment.

“I have to be centered, and I can’t be self-centered,” Hopkins said. “Now I am able to reach out to other individuals and provide an opportunity for them.”

Dawvid Chayim started at the program in March after he met Hopkins at a job fair. Since then, he has learned how to construct an aquaponics system, raising fish and plants together.

Dawvid Chayim (left) works at the Windy City Harvest Corps at Farm on Ogden in Chicago. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times
Dawvid Chayim (left) works at the Windy City Harvest Corps at Farm on Ogden in Chicago. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

“When I saw the blueprints of what we were going to do, I was like ‘Whoa, this is impossible,’ ” Chayim said. “It was overwhelming at first, but once I got into it and learned the system, everything came naturally. I guess it’s a hidden talent I never knew I had.”

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Chayim said he learned skills he never thought he could in the short time he has been in the program, but the most rewarding aspect is the people he works with.

“I work with an incredible team and some of the best people I ever worked with,” Chayim said. “This place is not just a job, it is more like a family. We really care about each other.”

Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.