Natalie's Everyday Heroes: Teens Grow Greens offers skill-building employment to kids from Milwaukee's north, south sides

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- You may have seen the beautiful plants grown and sold by Teens Grow Greens at your local farmer's market. It's a program that employs teenagers from Milwaukee's north and south sides. It's a job where they learn all about making things grow -- including themselves.

Cutting, weighing and bagging lettuce -- two years ago, Ajari Bailey couldn't have imagined himself here.

"Absolutely not! Absolutely not," he said with a laugh.

Now, he describes himself as a different person from who he was back then. 

"I would sit around and just not do nothing. Be in the house all day, not wanting to go nowhere," he said of life before Teens Grow Greens.

But like these plants at Milwaukee's Weber's Greenhouse, he's thriving. He's learned how to compost.

"And make sure no plant goes to waste," he explained.

He even has a favorite succulent. 

"It's called Frosty. And if you touch it, it's got more of a furry feeling to it," Bailey said, showing the fuzzy leaves. "Before I came to this program, I was more of a shy person. I think they pushed me really out of my box."

Bailey will be a senior at Messmer High School in the fall. This summer, he's an apprentice at Weber's through Teens Grow Greens.

"Teens Grow Greens is a series of skill-building employment that develops life skills through hands-on experience," explained founder and executive director, Charlie Uihlein.

Uihlein founded the program eight years ago.

"I was a teacher at Messmer High School and I saw a lot of the students there wanted jobs," he said. "They wanted another pathway to success."

So, Uihlein created Teens Grow Greens to reflect an educational experience he wanted to see.

"I think too often, in education, the teenagers don't feel like they're in the driver's seat," he said. "I wanted to have these teenagers be able to say, like, I'm able to do this and I can sort of choose my path and be able to succeed, because I've seen myself do it."

Bailey got an application to the program from a high school counselor. He says his friends didn't get it right away.

"They're like, really? You're growing plants for fun? I'm like, yeah, it's not as bad as it sounds, really," Bailey said.

And it is a good job. Teens Grow Greens employs more than 50 teenagers. They sell their plants at Weber's Greenhouse in the spring, summer and will open again soon for a fall season. They can also be found at local farmer's markets, such as one recently in the Deer District. 

"We're focusing on developing, it's been called a lot of different things, but the soft skills, leadership, developing their voice through communication," Uihlein said.

By nurturing plants, the teens are learning skills they can take to most any other job.

"So, agriculture, education, marketing and entrepreneurship," said Uihlein, giving some examples.

That's exactly what Bailey has done.

"They brought something out of me that I didn't know I could do myself. Yeah, I'm a completely different person from who I was two years ago," Bailey said with pride.

"He was excellent in his leadership skills. He was able to lead through his work ethic as well as his words," Uihlein added.

It's an opportunity that has taken root and grown.

"Knowing that I'm doing something good, and the place I grew up in, and seeing that I'm actually making a difference to other people's lives is really good," Bailey said.

Bailey was named top leader in the north side internship class and got a scholarship.

Teens Grow Greens also runs two community gardens and donates vegetables to local food pantries. 

For more information, click here

And if you'd like to nominate an Everyday Hero, send Natalie a message at NShepherd@cbs58.com.

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