• Root Riders job program teaches Newport teens about food and much more

    Root Riders job program teaches Newport teens about food and much more

    Savana Dunning
    Newport Daily News

    Read the original article here.

    NEWPORT — Bicycles with bags attached to the sides lean next to a tent, the table underneath it stocked high with greens and produce collected from community gardens.

    Three high schoolers, who helped grow the food by hand, sell what they have from their final harvest to Virginian visitor Dee Tokarski and her two granddaughters.


    “They approached me while we were walking to the playground, and so we stopped by,” Tokarski said. “I got lavender and garlic.”

    The produce stand at Miantonomi Park on Monday was the final product of a six-week pilot program out of Aquidneck Community Table called Root Riders.

    Through partnerships with other community organizations and grant money from the East Bay Community Action Program, nine kids were paid around $12.50 an hour to bike around to six community gardens, care for them and eventually harvest the produce to sell at Miantonomi Park. 

    Now that the pilot program has ended, Aquidneck Community Table will need to write a grant to fund the full version of the program for next year. Nikki Vasquez, community outreach coordinator for Aquidneck Community Table and co-creator of Root Riders, said the grant will fund the paychecks for the students, along with supporting equipment.

    “Without partnering with the Housing Authority and the East Bay Community Action program, we would not have been able to pay these students and do this,” Vasquez said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to return next year.”

    The program hired the nine teenagers from Newport through an application and interviewing process to teach them about the job hiring process. Most of the students did not know each other before signing up, but Vasquez said they became a close-knit group of friends.

    “It’s just so impressive to me how close they became,” Vasquez said. “They have their own group chat and talk about hanging out outside of work and everything.”

    The teenagers were not the only community members to benefit from the program, either. Co-coordinating this program was a part of TerraCorps service member Anjali Gordon’s first job out of college, and she said the program gave her confidence to invest more time in agriculture and food-based nonprofits in her work.

    “I think the program ran really well,” Gordon said. “We did the best we could with the resources we had … Hopefully in the years to come it grows more and this year’s students can mentor the next group.”

    Their third and final produce stand drew attention from passersby and public officials, who visited the students and purchased from their selection of herbs, snap peas, garlic, tomatoes and flowers.

    Newport City Councilor Angela McCalla, who represents the North End neighborhood where Miantonomi Park is located, said a personal thank you to Vasquez for her work in creating the program.

    “It’s great when the community is able to come together and connect for a cause,” McCalla said. “Obviously (the program) is bringing them together, but it’s also teaching them accountability and skills like how to harvest.”

    Council member Lynn Underwood Ceglie and state Sen. Dawn Euer also dropped in to purchase from the produce stand. Both said they liked how the program taught students about how food is produced and grown. 

    Learning how to garden was one of Arion Amoruso’s favorite parts in participating in the program, as well as earning his own money for the first time.

    “It was really interesting because I’ve never gardened before,” Amoruso said. “I got to meet new people and it was exciting to finally have money that I could spend on whatever I want. Because it was my money.”

    The students were responsible for most aspects of the program, including obtaining permits to sell at Miantonomi Park and managing the money accrued from the produce stand.

    Amoruso, Charlie de Ramel and Aiden Sparks all said they would return to the program, should it be renewed next summer, favoring the experience of being outdoors to other job opportunities for kids their age, like washing dishes at local restaurants.

    “This was different because it gave us the opportunity to be outside,” Sparks said. “It’s better than standing in a restaurant.”


    Many of the students recounted fond memories from the summer. Zeke Wolfshehl said they found a group of baby rabbits in one of their pea beds. The highlight of the summer for Sparks’ older sister, Gabby Sparks, was the time she helped a little girl who wanted to purchase strawberries. 

    “We were selling strawberries for $2 and this little girl came up with a dollar asking what she could get,” Gabby Sparks said. “She kept eyeing the strawberries and a woman offered to give her a dollar but she rejected it. The woman ended up giving us the extra dollar and we were able to sell the strawberries to the girl anyway. She gave us a thank you note later.”

    Sarah Burke, youth career specialist with the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce, alsovisited the students. She said she wants to see more job opportunities for young people in Newport like Root Riders.

    “What a great way to explore and get out and learn about where your food comes from and how the process works, from seed to fruition,” Burke said. “This is a beautiful example of engaging youth and giving them a financial incentive to not just work but do something that’s meaningful.”

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