At 23, Lorain County Community College (LCCC) and University Partnership student Frank Whitfield could be hanging out in the streets of south Elyria with gangs — and he is, just not the way that might seem. For four years he’s been leading kids as young as four and ranging through their teenage years in street gardening. In founding Eden Vision Club, Whitfield, a computer education instructor for the One Community program, administered by LCCC, has converted empty lots into flourishing summer gardens.
Whitfield, quiet and earnest, sprinkles conversations with biblical passages. Like this one, that explains his mission and the story behind the name choice for his organization: “And they shall say, ‘This land that was desolate is become like the garden of Eden…’ ”
“A man named Maurice Smalls was my mentor,” says Whitfield. “I met him through church, and we started talking about gardening. I built my first garden in my mother’s backyard on West Avenue in 2008.”
The Social Agripreneur
Agripreneurship is the pursuit of earthly gains in farming through modern methods. But Whitfield puts another spin on it. “We’re practicing social agripreneurship, empowering youth through gardening, helping them find a sense of purpose.”
Produce raised from Whitfield’s growing acreage — now including a donated plot or two of residential land in the city, and gardens within the Wilkes Villa housing tract — is sold at farmers’ markets and to City Fresh, a non-profit developer of neighborhood food centers. The small profit Eden Vision Club generates is literally sown back into the venture.
For Males Only, Except…
“I felt that African-American males were most in need of Eden Vision,” says Whitfield. “School, dropout, jail, unemployment. I’ve seen it too often. They have their sports dreams and identify with rappers. The entrepreneurial skill set isn’t encouraged and nourished as an alternative.”
That’s why Whitfield envisioned Eden Vision Club as a place “to help young males become men.” There was only one problem with his intent: “Girls wanted to join as much as boys. I couldn’t turn them away. So now we have about 30 kids between the ages of four and 12 and maybe 30 more teenagers. Male and female, all races, backgrounds and beliefs are welcome.”
Hold the Lettuce
“Cherry tomatoes and collard greens,” Whitfield replies without hesitation when asked about the favorite crops of growers and customers. Lettuce is the only crop that’s failed miserably. “It required way too much water and attention.” Whitfield, a husband and father of a nine-year-old, would rather focus all that excess attention on “his” kids, he says.