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Agriculture program helps youth grow

Damien Connell, 17, left, and Luke Mengel, 20, right, work together drilling holes through PVC pipe that will be used in a water cooling system inside the greenhouse at TEENS, Inc. in Winchester. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

Luke Mengel, 20, left, and Damien Connell, 17, right, get instruction from Matt Ferrell, center, on installing cooling panels inside the greenhouse at TEENS, Inc. in Winchester. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

Joe Fromme, a horticulturist and program director at TEENS, Inc. in Winchester, holds lettuce that was produced inside a greenhouse in Winchester using an aquaponic system. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

By Katie Demeria

WINCHESTER -- When asked what is grown in the TEENS Inc. greenhouses, volunteer Matt Ferrell, who works with many of the at-risk youth and disabled individuals the program serves, said, "Kids. The rest is arbitrary."

TEENS Inc. stands for Teaching Employment Enhancement Necessary for Survival. It is an agricultural vocational program teaching those at-risk youth skills that, according to founders Sarah and Joe Fromme, become life skills.

The program started almost two years ago, and in that time volunteers have worked with 45 to 50 participants.

Many of the students TEENS Inc. serves come from the local juvenile detention center, and according to Sarah Fromme, 100 percent of the participants who have been released from the centers for at least six months now have jobs.

The recidivism rate for participants was also down by 11 percent.

"A lot of people will donate money, but they won't donate time," Joe Fromme said.

During the 12 weeks in which participants are enrolled in TEENS, their dispositions oftentimes change, the Frommes said. Volunteers report that bullies become buddies. Ferrell said that by the 12th week participants make eye contact and become more engaging, whereas during the first week they usually look down at their feet.

While they grow plants, Ferrell said, the participants themselves are growing as well.

The program focuses on STEM skills, teaching students many of the engineering and mathematical skills required to build agricultural things like aquaponics systems, as well as basic masonry and gardening skills.

The Frommes say the change in students by the end of the program is "amazing."

"Confidence comes from accomplishment," Sarah Fromme said.

The Frommes are two of the founding members of TEENS Inc. The third, Johnny Craig, is the executive director. He has a background in behavioral therapy, and was able to apply that knowledge to the program.

The Frommes own a masonry business, dealing with brick, stone and decorative concrete, and Craig deals with landscaping. Together, they are able to pass on their knowledge to the TEENS participants.

During the 12 weeks, participants spend two hours twice a week with their TEENS instructors, usually in their aquaponics greenhouse.

But they also spend a significant amount of time out in the community. The Frommes ensure that students engage in what Sarah Fromme calls "the joy of giving."

Participants have provided free landscaping services to the home of a local elderly woman, the Evans Home for Children and the Douglas Community Learning Center, among others.

And specific job training comes into play as well. Participants do mock interviews when they begin and finish the program, and fill out mock applications. The goal is they will gain skills that will help them find their way in the professional world.

"Their whole demeanor changes by the end," Ferrell said.

Word about the program is spreading, too. Some court judges know about it, as do lawyers, and they are getting requests from volunteers in the community, asking what help they need.

In the first two years, the Frommes and Craig largely funded the nonprofit organization, providing about 75 to 78 percent of its funding.

Recently, they had their first fundraiser, though, and raised around $8,600. With its success, the Frommes say they believe they will be able to continue serving the at-risk youth in the community.

"I was so proud," Sarah Fromme said about the success of the first fundraiser.

"I believe she was twinkling," Ferrell added.

To find out more about the program, visit www.teensincva.org.

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com

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