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I Used to Serve in the Navy and Now I Teach At-Risk Kids How to Farm

I have never, ever worked so hard. Even in the Navy I got liberty, I got time off. But this is crazy because it's my passion, there is nothing that can keep me from doing this—knock on wood—day in and day out, all hours of the night. The growing, the...
Photo by Anthony Masterson

Recently, MUNCHIES published an article about war veterans who have turned to farming to help ease their transition into civilian life, and about one organization, Veterans to Farmers, that helps provide training and funding for such vets. Kelly Carlisle is a Navy veteran who founded her Oakland, California non-profit youth farm, Acta Non Verba, with the assistance of another vet farmer organization, the Farmer Veteran Coalition. There, at-risk kids grow their own food and sell it at area farmers markets and a small CSA, and deposit the proceeds into their own savings accounts.

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"Acta Non Verba" means "Deeds, Not Words" and is the official slogan of the US Merchant Marines, in honor of Carlisle's time in the service. And in a complete coincidence, it turns out that Oakland's Tassafaronga Park, where ANV leases its quarter-acre of farmland, commemorates a World War II naval battle between the US and Japan. We lost, but it still seems like kismet that Carlisle's farm ended up there.

I'm 35 years old and I grew up in the Bay Area. I went to boot camp of August of 2001 and got out in March of 2005. I was primarily stationed in Sasebo, Japan, onboard the USS Essex.

When I first got out of the service, it was a really difficult transition. One of the things they tell you as you're exiting the military is, "There are jobs for us. We are the most highly trained people in the world. There are jobs just laying around and they'll hire you." I didn't know anything about PTSD, so I had no idea that that was a thing holding veterans back from being hired. But luckily a friend of mine from high school had a good friend that worked at a recruiting agency and they happened to need a temp, so I got on there and I just made it work.

I worked in corporate America for maybe three and a half years and I loved, loved, loved it. I was an administrative assistant. But what was really difficult was the way that people in this area talked about the military. When I was in San Diego, it was all, "Thank you for your service," or, "Hey, my brother's in the service, where did you serve?" Things like that. But up here, back in Oakland, it was going to a movie theater and asking if they had a military discount and somebody scoffing, "Uh, no."

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I saw a tree with giant lemons dangling off of it, and I thought somebody had vandalized the tree. But when I tried to remove the lemons it turned out they were real, and it was like, 'Woah.'

I got laid off during the economic downturn. It was really, really hard because my daughter was like three or four years old, and I couldn't afford daycare, so she and I just kind of sat around staring at each other. I happened to randomly be in a plant nursery one day, trying to find something free for us to do. I saw a tree with giant lemons dangling off of it, and I thought somebody had vandalized the tree. But when I tried to remove the lemons, it turned out that they were attached—they were real. And it was like, "Woah." I looked at my baby girl and said, "I think this is a lemon tree!" And she's i like, "Yeah, Mom. Duh."

So I started to think about farming, or growing things. And before I knew it, I had containers full of every kind of vegetable I could think to eat. I had garbage cans full of apple trees and cherry trees and all kinds of stuff.

In August of 2010, this report came out about teen prostitution in Oakland being on the rise. Oakland was listed as the fifth most dangerous city in the US, and at the time it had almost a 40 percent high school dropout rate. That stunned me. How is anything going to get better if kids are dropping out of school? So I did some research. I have a great friend who is a school administrator for a middle school, and I was talking to him about what was going on in Oakland. He told me, "This statistic comes out every three or four years and then people forget all about it. Nobody is really working on it."

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#cute!!

A photo posted by @anv_tassafaronga on Sep 19, 2014 at 3:48pm PDT

Right around that time, former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom started the K to College program based on a study that shows that kids are seven times more likely to attend college if they have a savings account. It doesn't seem to matter if it's a large savings account, or a small savings account—just that somebody has taken the time to invest in their future.

I started reading the comments on some of these articles, and you know what they say—never, ever read the comments. Only in this case it really galvanized me, because a lot of folks were saying stuff like, "I wish you all would stop telling these kids they can go to college. The world only needs so many nuclear physicists, but the world will always need janitors, and you don't need a degree for that." With all of that, it started to ding my patriotic bell, and I think that was the moment that made me feel like I had to do something. Every single child deserves a chance to be all that they can be—not to quote the army or whatnot—but to have the best life, to have every opportunity afforded to them. So I started Acta Non Verba.

The kids plan it, they plant it, they harvest it, and they sell it. They're able to understand what a hard day's work is like, and to see how income is generated for themselves.

We mainly work with children aged five to 12, and we have a few teen interns, too. About 68 percent come from within walking distance of our farm, and then we have a few outliers who have heard about us through their friends or family members. The kids are not used to gardening or growing anything, for the most part. What we learned in 2012 was that we had to take it down to zero: You know, "This is soil, not dirt. Worms are our friends." 2013 was a real big success. We opened up our first savings accounts, and it was really amazing. Last year, 2014, we got even bigger; 160 kids came through our camps throughout the year, blending the fun with the work.

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#FarmBabies #HarvestingMint for the #AMAZING event at @berkeleyfreehouse tomorrow!! #EastOaklandRising!! A photo posted by @anv_tassafaronga on Nov 10, 2014 at 4:26pm PST

I wanted to figure out a way for the kids to really invest in themselves, so that nobody could come back and say, "You didn't earn that money." The kids plan it, they plant it, they harvest it, and they sell it. And through all of that, they're able to understand what a hard day's work is like, and they're able to see how income is generated for themselves. They're investing in their own futures.

I think farmers represent just about every industry: You have to be a scientist; you have to be an accountant; you have to be a public relations person; you have to be a mathematician. Those are skills the kids are learning through their years working with us. They also learn dedication to a task: working your hardest, making sure your tomato plant is the best one in the garden.

And it's not just the kids, but me, too. I have never, ever worked so hard. Even in the Navy, I got liberty—I got time off. But this is crazy because it's my passion, there is nothing that can keep me from doing this—knock on wood—day in and day out, all hours of the night. The growing, the farming itself is where I find my salvation. Where I find my peace, and my happy place, is in planting and growing and making sure all my plants are safe. It's wonderful.

I know quite a few farmer veterans. What farming does for us, I think, is that it provides us with another outlet to serve, another way to be good, to be on the side of angels, to have a stake in how our country grows and how our country eats.

As told to Lauren Rothman