By Rebecca Pauley
How can a small band of teens transform an urban lot of trash into a bounty of green, natural treasure? What if a neighborhood filled with neglect and despair can once again be filled with hope; and an overgrown lot be replaced with a thriving oasis?
Welcome to Denzel Thompson's urban gardens: flourishing acres of flowers, plants and greenhouses, creating an abundance of fresh vegetables and herbs for the local residents to enjoy.
Denzel Thompson,18, is the youngest co-founder of Philadelphia Urban Creators (PUC). PUC is a youth led, community-based organization that sees overgrown or garbage-covered vacant lots as starting points for gardens that provide fresh vegetables and herbs for the public.
Denzel related that the idea sprouted when he was around 14 years old. “I found it difficult to stay healthy like many kids in my neighborhood because
of the lack of access to fresh food and produce.
“Then, after visiting New Orleans with friends to help out after Hurricane Katrina, I realized that Philadelphia and New Orleans suffer from the same type of social issues. After that trip, we started discussing the idea of Philadelphia Urban Creators,” he explained.
Since PUC's start, Thompson and his team have planted about eight gardens, including one that expands about three acres! This captured the attention of locals and the media.
As word of this great organization spread, Thompson went on to win a National Teen Nick Halo Award. He also has the help of world-renowned actress and activist Queen Latifah!
A process such as creating an urban garden is no easy task, and requires a tremendous amount of teamwork and perseverance.
When asked about his team, Denzel replied, “We definitely put together the team for its resources...and I did not just sit down with a group of people that were just like me. With my group I made sure that we were all diverse, because the more diverse you are, the better your ideas can prosper, and the better great things will come to you at the end. The more diverse you are, the better intake of positivity.”
Now, Denzel has a core group of four friends working together. He also built relationships with the communities in which the gardens are located. Volunteers from the neighborhoods, colleges, schools, and even teens from the local youth detention center, Restorative Justice, dedicate their time to the gardens, gaining an education and inspiration for a better future. Denzel describes this diversity as “a good mixture.”
To even further the diversity of this organization, Denzel lets young children lend a hand as well. Denzel, interviewed by Karen Tortorella on the Philadelphia radio program, “Kids News and the Whole Family, Too!” (Thursdays on 1360 am radio WNJC) explained that he is “happy to see kids all around participating and loving the idea of gardening.”
Denzel also told Karen on air that, “They (the kids) are our future. If they can do something this great then they can be the new leaders of tomorrow.”
For Denzel, winning the National Teen Nick Halo award seemed to be one of the greatest successes of his work. Winning this brought Queen Latifah into his world as his mentor, and allowed millions of people to see the good he is doing on national television.
Winning the award was a “great, emotional feeling,” said Denzel. When asked about Ms. Latifah’s support, he advised that “all I need to do when I need help now is give Queen Latifah a call, and she will help us out any way she can.”
Creating the urban gardens is a long, laborious task that necessitates great dedication. In truth, it was a journey for Denzel, having lost more than one hundred pounds and gained self-confidence through the process.
I asked Denzel what the most important lesson was that he learned in the process of creating these beautiful, urban gardens.
He answered, “The most important lesson that I learned is to be thankful for what I have, and all the friends that I have, and especially being as diverse as possible because learning through being diverse can get you through a lot. If everybody starts different, outside the box, you will be surprised at what can happen in the world, and that is really great.”
Denzel also wants the younger generation to, “never be afraid to do something that you think is right to do in the world because when you do what you think is right, you are changing the world by the second. Not by the minute, or the next hour or day, but by the next second.
The minute you start doing something great for your community you are immediately starting to change the world...I do not want (kids) to feel like they are on their own. There are a lot of people out there like them, with the same ideas, and they are just afraid to express it. But as long as they take action, there is going to be a whole lot of people that will pop out of the shadows, expressing their action with them,” he explained.
As for the future, Denzel has big plans to continue selling his produce to nearby restaurants, which will provide the money to keep the PUC funded. Eventually he wants to take this project nationally, so people everywhere do not have to worry about affording good nutrition.
He also envisions “doing this for as long as I have the strength in my body, and I also plan on making it a career. I am passionate about not only urban farming, but also helping out the community, bringing the community together, and bringing people not from the community together.”
I found Denzel Thompson and his work particularly inspiring because he was able to transform not only the land, but also the community, into something beautiful and beneficial to everyone around him. It proves that he could see the beauty in this world, even when others can not see it. It also proves that no matter how discouraging something can be, if you plant seeds of kindness it can grow into a garden of hope.
If you would like to be part of the Philadelphia Urban Gardens, you can check out their Facebook page or their website, www.phillyurbancreators.org. If you want to volunteer, you can simply call them and they can schedule something for you.