At 17, Eric Sanders already has a pretty interesting job: He travels across the South and West sides to formerly abandoned lots, where he harvests, cleans and stores flowers.
Eric landed that job through a program run by Chicago Eco House, which turns empty lots in Englewood, Woodlawn, Washington Park and West Garfield Park into flower farms.
Eco House is a non-profit organization that helps at-risk youth ages 16 to 24.
Last year, it opened a store, Southside Blooms, that operated out of the Eco House headquarters, 6439 S. Peoria St. The store sold flowers grown at those farms across the city, and it provided training and jobs to some of the young people the group serves.
But on Thursday at 11 a.m., Southside Blooms will open its own brick-and-mortar shop at 6250 S. Morgan St.
“The impetus behind (Southside Blooms) was really just this dogged belief that we can come up with some solution to really stem a lot of out-of-control violence and poverty that the South and West sides have come to be known by,” said Quilen Blackwell, founder of Chicago Eco House.
Last year, Chicago Eco House reached out to youth through schools or block clubs on the South and West sides, like Crushers Club, to let them know about Southside Blooms.
This year, the shop partnered with Cook County Juvenile Probation to connect with more at-risk youth. Blackwell said the partnership will create “a pipeline for youth who are incarcerated … [to] get back on their feet.”
“A lot of the youth that we work with are kids who are coming off the streets,” said Blackwell. “Essentially, they’re either gang-affiliated or they’re in that world or they’re friends with gang members.”
Employment through the partnership is merit- and performance-based. Once a juvenile completes their sentence, they can train with Southside Blooms and learn skills such as timeliness, conflict resolution in the workplace and how to be a good team member.
Blackwell said the ones who “truly excel” in the 10-week training are hired at $15 an hour. Youth employees can work as floral assistants, greeting card assistants or farm assistants. There is no time limit for how long the youth employees can stay.
Cade Kamaleson, Southside Blooms’ farm manager, said the most tangible impact the program has had on the community has been the physical transformation the farms bring to the lots — some owned by Eco House, others by the city and some leased from private parties.
“It goes from an empty lot (that) people just kind of walk past to something that’s really beautiful,” said Kamaleson. “When you’re working in there, people in the community say hi, and you get to know the neighbors around the farms and people are just interested and excited about what’s going on.”
Eric said working with Southside Blooms has taught him a lot about what flowers need and the steps required to allow them to grow properly.
“It’s good just having time on my hands,” Eric said. “Growing up in the city of Chicago, a lot of stuff going on. This is good, working on something natural, something that gives. You learn a lot.”
He added that the more time he spends at Southside Blooms, the more he learns.
Eric said he told one of his friends about Southside Blooms and was able to help him get a job with the shop. He frequently takes flowers home to his grandmother, too. He plans to stay and become the next farm manager.
Blackwell said he hopes to open more shops across the country to help at-risk youth in other cities. Already, the group has a pilot program in Detroit, and it recently opened a farm in Gary.
“Chicago, obviously, is not the only city that is facing these issues,” Blackwell said. “It’s a national problem that we’re talking about, and we feel like we have … at least an economic solution that can help take a big chunk out of that problem.”
Cheyanne M. Daniels is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.