John Gordon was living in northern California and working as a case manager with kids in the foster care and juvenile court systems when he had an epiphany.
“A couple of kids lived out in the country and had a really good experience working on a small homesteading farm,” says Gordon, a Kansas City native. “I saw the benefits of working outside, working with your hands, and teamwork.”
In 2010, after moving back to his hometown, Gordon founded BoysGrow, a nonprofit organization that teaches farming and entrepreneurship to teenage boys living in Kansas City’s urban core.
Gordon wrote a business plan, connected with investors and found two acres for a farm in Kansas City, Kansas. Then he hired two teachers who were off for the summer and welcomed 12 kids into the first BoysGrow program.
Nine years later, more than 100 boys have graduated from BoysGrow, now located on 10 acres in south Kansas City. The graduates have sold produce to local stores and restaurants and created a variety of products, from salsa and ketchup to barbecue sauce and reusable grocery bags (this year’s product).
The program is supported by an impressive list of local foundations, companies, restaurants and high-profile chefs, including Howard Hanna of The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange and Lidia Bastianich of Lidia’s Kansas City.
Bastianich will host the annual BoysGrow Farm Fest this Sunday, September 29 at the nonprofit’s farm. The fundraiser features food from several local restaurants, live music, a beer hall and a kids’ zone with a petting zoo and fishing. Tickets cost $50 to $100 for adults or $15 for kids through Eventbrite. Kids under 3 get in for free.
We recently caught up with Gordon to talk about how he built BoysGrow from the ground up, graduate success stories, and what’s next for the nonprofit.
What was that first year of BoysGrow like?
It was fun, hectic and exciting to take teenage youth and actually grow food on a couple acres as opposed to a backyard plot. I just had a little backyard garden, so it was really just trial and error. We started putting plants in the ground and going from there.
What have you learned since that first year?
I would say that when you’re dealing with weather and teenage youth, that patience is a virtue.
I didn’t expect this would be a job for me. I thought I’d start it and maybe do it during the summer. I really didn’t know what was going to happen. I think I realized pretty quick that the boys really liked what they were doing. It was a unique platform for them to build new relationships and make new friends.
What do the boys gain from learning to farm?
I underestimated how important it is for kids to get outside. Kids do want to get outside — they’re just not sure what to do, and a lot of their peers are inside all the time.
What do they gain from learning entrepreneurship?
We hear a lot about kids who are applying for college or applying for jobs. The level of professionalism that our boys have compared to their peers is usually quite a bit higher. They’ve done public speaking, they’ve done sales, marketing — they can talk about entrepreneurship. They know what it means to be a part of a business, and they’re not threatened by it.
When they’re applying (for college or jobs), they see the bigger picture. Our boys act a little bit beyond their years.
Can you share a BoysGrow success story?
We’ve definitely had a handful. We’ve got a kid who’s a senior at K-State who’s majoring in business agriculture. He’s a city boy who started working here and really enjoyed it. We were able to get him an internship with Smithfield.
Tell us about the farm kitchen you’re building.
It’s a multi-functional building with new office space, a certified kitchen and canning center, a walk-in cooler, a produce handling room and a flex space — an education room where we can teach classes and hold events.
The farm kitchen definitely opens us up for a lot of things. It’s going to allow us to operate a lot more easily and streamline things. It’s going to allow us to grow more food because we have the back-end system to store it and take it out of the field. From a nonprofit perspective, the goal is to be as self-sustainable as possible and staying true to our mission. We are currently about 40 percent sustained by our own produce, and we hope this building helps us be more sustainable.
Do you stay in touch with BoysGrow graduates?
Yes. Our graduates will say things like, “OMG, I was at McGonigle’s (Market) last week and I saw the product we made. I didn’t fully get what we were doing at the time, but in hindsight, I get what it was like to create something, and to have a voice in something.”
The kids that made the recipe (for BoysGrow’s barbecue sauce), they did like 39 batches of it, and it was really hard. I would say one thing they learn on the product journey is respect for how much work goes into making things — how much thought and effort goes into something before it hits the shelf.