It was 2005 – the year that YouTube was created, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and Guitar Hero hit shelves for the first time. 2005 was also the year that Clemens Pietzner (founder) and Mark Birdsall (former Director of Youth Programs 2004-2016) had a phone call with Temple University’s Youth Voices Program.
(If you missed our blog where Clemens, Mark, and others reflect on their time at Trellis for Tomorrow, find it here)
After a discussion about the challenges, burdens, and choices that our young people face when it comes to food, it became overwhelmingly clear that there was an opportunity for youth across the greater Philadelphia area to become more connected to the food they ate: where it came from, how it was grown, how to cook it, etc.
Mark and Clemens agreed to bringing some of Temple’s young people together with some of our interns once a month to learn about their food system, work on farms, and cook the food they helped grow. Out of this conversation, Food for Thought was born.
The Early Years
Food for Thought group photo, 2008
One Saturday morning, an initial group was scheduled to participate in the program at the Charlestown CSA. ONE student got off the bus. But we learned from our trials and found creative ways to get more young people involved.
One of the best experiences that first year was a two-night overnight at Camphill Soltane in Nantmeal (a campus for people with disabilities and where our offices were located at the time). We visited local farms, worked at the Kimberton CSA, and made butter and fresh bread with the staff from Soltane.
We saw that having the group for a whole day, giving them fresh food, talking through their experiences in the evening, and repeating the experience the next day had a major impact. The second summer, we created a similar experience at Chamounix Mansion Hostel in Fairmount Park.
At the time, we were looking to attract young people from Philadelphia. But that fall, we started talking about the youth here, in Chester County, that would benefit from this program. So, we moved the program out to the Kimberton Waldorf School that next summer.
Gradually, over the 2005-2009 period, we solidified the program and established the routines and values that made it unique. We served about 24 youth per summer, for 3 weeks, paying them a small stipend ($10/day) as an incentive.
Food for Thought cooking class, 2008
During those years, youth went to Kimberton CSA, Sancanac CSA, and Charlestown Farm CSA. It was hard work, upwards of 3 hours each morning in the gardens, but many of our youth came back year after year because it meant something to them. (You can still read the old blog posts here)
Then, in 2008, when the financial crisis hit and stimulus money flooded state coffers – Chester County called and offered us funding to take 40 youth for 4 or 5 weeks and pay them minimum wage. After some intense discussion, we agreed we could, and we did. Chester County became one of our biggest supporters for years.
Transporting participants from communities like Park Springs and Rolling Hills posed a logistical challenge and, while working with CSA’s provided significant value, the food harvested didn’t actually make it back to the communities that needed it. We thought, why bring the community to the garden, when we could bring the garden to the community?
An Exciting Transformation
So, in 2018, Food for Thought went through a pretty significant transformation. We worked with our partners at Hobarts Run (the community impact arm of the Hill School) and in the summer we piloted the first SEED Skills program (formerly Youth Seed Enterprise) at a new garden located on a vacant lot right in the heart of Pottstown Borough.
SEED Skills provides a dynamic combination of hands-on work, engaging classroom sessions, and transformative activities for young people ages 13-18. This model allowed us to establish gardens directly in the communities where most of our participants lived – bringing increased access to fresh and nutritious produce directly to their families and neighbors.
Since then, the program has grown each year. We now have 4 SEED Skills gardens that are completely youth-run and are situated in neighborhoods where there is historically less access to nutrient dense food. During the pilot season in 2018, we had 15 participants. In 2022, that number was up to 70. In 2023, it’s projected to grow again.
But even as this new format took root, we noticed a trend – many of our participants would leave the program by age 14 or 15 to pursue summer jobs for higher pay, and those that did return for multiple years experienced a similar program year after year.
To find out what happened next, read this post about our Leadership Track.
A Big Impact
Today, the impact this program makes on the lives of young people is clear. Like with Emily, who shares, “When I joined the program, I didn’t really like gardening or people. But somehow, with Trellis, it just works.” 2 years later, Emily continues to grow with us and is a now a Senior Team Leader.
By the end of the summer, they transformed – opening themselves up to more opportunities, making friendships, and even landing a job for the school year. Crane’s mom followed up with us after the summer to share that they had started their new job and credited the program as a big factor in his new-found confidence and success.
We’ve come a long way since 2005 and have touched the lives of many. Join us in celebrating how far we’ve come with a gift to our Resilient Communities Fund today.
Cailin is a long-time supporter of Trellis for Tomorrow’s mission. As Director of Individual Giving, they come to us with 10 years of experience in community building and fundraising. When they’re not working in their own garden, you can find them rock climbing, mountain biking, or at their son’s hockey game.
Introduction by Clemens Pietzner, founder of Triskeles Foundation (later Trellis for Tomorrow)
“As the founder of Triskeles Foundation, I was inspired to help build an organization that was about bridge building between ages, mindsets, backgrounds, and a broad range of learning and working opportunities—especially with and for youth, which could lead to pathways forward for individuals and their communities.
The organization’s youth programs began in 2002 and were based on a few simple but powerful guiding principles that hold true today:
Young people can and often do offer a great deal to and for their communities.
The world is complex and can be confusing; experiential learning can provide a path forward for young people in terms of skill acquisition; growth and self- development.
Access to, growing and understanding healthy food and food systems is a central building block to healthy individuals and communities.
Access to working/learning opportunities and exposure to positive mentors and service- to self, family, and community in a context of co-creating a better world for all, can provide inspiration and motivation.
Positive change is possible—in smaller and bigger ways.
Twenty years later, our world has changed, but I know that many, many young people, and their communities, have been and continue to be touched by these principles while participating in Trellis programs. The testimony to Trellis’ success are the positive legacies and changes they, their families and communities, in turn, have experienced.
Being “of service, or in service” to others is a long-term journey and ever-changing experiment of social, financial, and relational realities combined with imagination, grit, determination, and joy. Trellis for Tomorrow continues to be on that journey!”
What inspired you to get involved with Trellis for Tomorrow?
Ray Schneider former Board President 2010-2021 | From the beginning I was drawn to Triskeles/Trellis because of a most unique approach to achieving a mission that was multidimensional — bringing young people into a close relationship with their innate capabilities, their health, and the health of their communities. Over the years the organization has refined its programs and dramatically improved its ability to make positive change at both the individual and community level. Seeing the impact on so many young lives, helping them reach their full potential, has been heartwarming and often tear inducing!
Tessa Henry former Youth Participant, currentBoard Member 2004-Present | In high school, I became increasingly interested in food and hunger issues. One of my teachers and mentors at the time encouraged me to seek a volunteer opportunity with Trellis. Immediately, I was impressed by their commitment to local gardens, healthy food, and providing professional development opportunities for youth in the Montgomery and Chester County areas. I was initially inspired by the leadership of the organization. Their vision and passion for fostering community gardens since 2003 was exciting. Twenty years later, the organization’s leadership continues to inspire me and the communities it serves. Last year, more than 600 volunteers dedicated their time in a local garden. This is a testament to Trellis’ dedication and extraordinary staff. I am so grateful for their support, learning opportunities, and care that I proudly serve as one of their Board members today.
What was the field of gardening education like when you first got involved/started working with us?
Mark BirdsallDirector of Youth Programs 2004-2016 | There wasn’t much of it. Federation of Neighborhood Centers, in Philly, had one program started about the same time as FFT and similar, but not much else.
What was your biggest “lesson learned” during your time with Trellis for Tomorrow?
Mark BirdsallDirector of Youth Programs 2004-2016 Perhaps twofold: First, if you give young people truly real experiences, ones that are addressing the changes needed in the world, and if you connect them with adults passionate about their own work as part of this experience, then magic happens. Second, hire people to work with you who share as much of your passion and vision as possible, and then leave them as free as possible, including them in decision making and supporting them when they need it.
Tell us about one of your “firsts” during your time with Trellis for Tomorrow.
Mark BirdsallDirector of Youth Programs 2004-2016 | I was interviewed on WHYY radio by Mike McGrath, host of You Bet Your Garden. He had heard about our Food for All program and invited me to talk about it and (Triskeles Programs) Trellis. Mike was a very good interviewer and we clicked, and I got to talk about FFA and many other things we were doing to a national audience on NPR. That was the first time I was on national radio!
What is one of your favorite memories from your time with us?
Ray Schneider Board President 2010-2021 | Some years ago during a Triskeles staff and Board dinner, we were discussing our programs, their effectiveness and future. Right in the middle of our conversation, out of nowhere, our waitress interrupted and asked, “are you all from Triskeles?” We all turned, nodded, and said yes. At which point, on the verge of tears, she began to tell us that her son was a “graduate” of our summer program and described how the program had literally changed his life and maybe even saved it, because he wasn’t on a good path prior to his involvement with Triskeles. Of course, the staff remembered her son and had all good things to say about him. Well, that just about brought us all to tears – happy tears.
What do you like most about the culture of Trellis for Tomorrow?
Mark BirdsallDirector of Youth Programs 2004-2016 | We’re an organization where we value each other’s strengths, support each other where they need support, and put our work for young people first.
How do we stand out from other organizations?
Ray Schneider Board President 2010-2021 | I believe that Trellis programs are uniquely positioned to answer the call so many
communities are making — help us to help our young people make better life choices and help us to help our community members live healthier lives.
Tessa Henry former Youth Participant, currentBoard Member 2004-Present |I first joined the organization as a youth participant in 2004. Their youth programs taught me about sustainability, the significance of a healthy diet, and most importantly, what it means to be an active and engaged member of your community. At the age of 17, I acquired new skills which became extremely valuable when I started my career as a young adult. I honed my leadership skills through my time as an honorary member of their board when I was in high school. I learned to empathize and strengthened my social skills when volunteering in community gardens and speaking on behalf of the organization to local businesses.
I use these skills every day in my work as a U.S. Diplomat overseas. Being a public servant requires empathy and a passion to drive change. Much of my desire to serve stemmed from my first interactions at Trellis. I am a proud example of the steadfast commitment this organization has to the youth that it serves. Their mission inspired me, their programs tapped my potential as a leader, and their impact today keeps me engaged as a volunteer in 2023. Trellis is unique because their programs have a long-lasting impact for young adults. Youth participants in Trellis are not only learning about food and healthy lifestyles, but they also go on to THRIVE and be successful in their future endeavors.
Do you have any advice for up-and-coming board members?
Ray Schneider Board President 2010-2021 | Future Board members should understand that being a part of the Trellis family means that your voice is important and the skills, experiences, and energy you bring are valued. So don’t join if your goal is to just have a neat sounding non-profit on your resume.
Tessa Henry former Youth Participant, currentBoard Member 2004-Present | Be present. We are often overwhelmed with our family and career obligations. However, when you can engage Trellis as a participant, employee, or board member please remember that this organization really values your time. Your contributions and skills really matter, and they will help this organization grow. We want to hear your thoughts and ideas. Being fully engaged is critical.