AUSTIN — Youth Outreach Services, a social services agency for disadvantaged teens on the West Side of Chicago, recently spent $600,000 renovating its outpost in Austin. The facility, though still far from luxurious, is a nice totem for investment in neighborhoods too often overlooked by people holding the purse strings in Chicago.
The place next door? Not so much.
That property, a small chain-linked lot on West Division Street, has sat vacant for years ... unless garbage and vermin count as tenants.
"Liquor bottles, condoms, indications there were rats in there; (it was) pretty bad," Youth Outreach Services Executive Director Rick Velasquez said.
But thanks to a new Chicago charity and a city grant, new life is about to grow from the scraggly piece of earth.
Feeding Mouths Filling Minds raised nearly $3,000 on Tuesday to fund the seeding of an urban garden on the once trash-strewn site at 5914 W. Division St. Those donations for the garden — FMFM's first project in Chicago — match a city grant issued last year for the endeavor. Planting is expected to begin this spring.
"We can do a lot with very little to change the perception of the community," Velasquez said.
The community has problems running deeper than mere perception, though. The new Youth Outreach Services site lies in a so-called "food desert," with the closest proper grocery store sitting two miles away in suburban Oak Park, Velasquez said. That fact is supported by the city's website.
FMFM, based in Milwaukee, expanded to Chicago in January 2014, according to Michael Espenschied, president of the charity's Chicago auxiliary board. Funding the garden reflects the organization's mission to not just feed, but also enable the neighborhood's access to produce and other nutritious food.
The garden is supporting "technically 90 children, but the impact it will have on the community is what's driving me," Espenschied said. FMFM raised the money Tuesday at the House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn St.
YOS provides behavioral and outpatient substance abuse counseling, but also finds work for many teenagers who have landed in Cook County's juvenile justice system. Nearly 300 of such local adolescents are served by YOS's Austin facility alone, Velasquez said.
Now, those young people have a chance to plant this garden and change their environment. The $3,000 city grant issued last year helped clear the site and allow YOS to buy new, suitable soil. The total project cost is estimated between $8,000 to $10,000.
Velasquez doesn't know exactly what the garden will grow yet, but the teenagers involved have ideas: 20 large garden beds growing fruits and vegetables, and maybe even spots for a beehive and small livestock. The youth also plan to sell what they grow.
"My ideal is you could do your own farmer's market here in the community," Velasquez said.
YOS recently paid $1 for a three-year lease on the site, which is owned by the proprietor of a liquor store across the street. If successful, the garden could be the first of many across other areas of the city YOS serves, including North Lawndale.
"This has always been kind of a dream of ours," Velasquez said. "Around here, there's so much land that's open like this."
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