O Grows expands to serve Youth Development Center

Students sitting in classroom with boxes of fruits and vegetables on the table

Earlier this year, Compound Solutions, Inc., the Center for Applied Health Sciences, and JUVN3 Holdings, LLC., announced a $500,000 investment in Auburn University’s College of Education. These companies work together to research, develop and bring to market products with real-world benefits for people in the areas of health, nutrition and fitness.

“These industry leaders are committed to maximizing human potential and it’s evident in both their business and philanthropy,” said Duante Stanton, director of the College of Education’s Office of Development. “As stewards of their generosity, we look forward to maximizing their impact on our students and community by empowering our first-class experts to do great work. This gift will touch the lives of Auburn University faculty and students, Lee County residents, and scholars around the world.” 

In addition to funding research and an endowed professorship, the gift also supports the expansion of the college’s O Grows program. O Grows is a thriving yet low key outreach operation that provides community garden plots behind the old Brown School not far from downtown Opelika, along with a structure that allows students from the Opelika Learning Center to become engaged in the local community. More specifically, O Grows provides workforce development and training for some of the areas most marginalized students. 

little kids standing in two lines outside tossing balls back and forth

Through their support, these private companies have now allowed O Grows to serve an additional marginalized community: the Lee County Youth Development Center (LCYDC). The Center provides residential, clinical, and educational services to young people in need. The Center has been in operation since 1973 and seeks to maintain the highest standards of quality care and innovative practices with expertise in the areas of prevention and intervention.

Sean Forbes, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Foundations, Leadership, and Technology, is the director and driving force behind O Grows.

“The funds for the garden installation at LCYDC will be used as part of the vocational and educational courses at the Center,” he said. “The funds will also be used to hire residents of the Center to help maintain the garden in cooperation with O Grows staff. We want the garden operation there to have an impact similar to the one we have had at our original location in Opelika.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed planned progress at the new site, but Forbes said O Grows — in collaboration with donors and the College of Education Office of Development — did manage to raise funds to secure Christmas gifts for the 41 residents at the Center.

Each year the larger university office of development partners with Angel Tree to buy gifts for kids in need. Last year, COE Development coordinator Kelly Buckingham had the idea to support kids locally that have a connection with the college, leading to the decision to ensure that students at LCYDC received gifts from their wish list.

While construction of the new garden site has slowed, the O Grows farmers market has been deemed an “essential operation” in Opelika and is serving the community this summer.

“In 2016, and in support of our mission to ‘grow food and community,’ O Grows launched the City of Opelika’s only direct to consumer farmers market,” Forbes said. “The market is open on Tuesday afternoons from mid-May through August and is staffed, in part, by local high school students who are at-risk for dropping out. To date, ten of our students have been employed and each of them has graduated from high school. Following their employment, three of the students have gone on to attend Southern Union Community College, two have enrolled with Job Corps,
and four have obtained employment with local restaurants and landscaping firms. So we are very pleased with that success and encourage the community to come out and support us.”

The O Grows Farmers Market provides the necessary infrastructure and marketing for up to 20 local, small farm growers and value-added producers to sell their products to 300+ customers per week in season.

Located at the intersection of two of the five most food insecure areas in Lee County, the O Grows Farmers Market provides the necessary infrastructure and marketing for up to 20 local, small farm growers and value-added producers to sell their products to 300+ customers per week in season. O Grows also hosts training periodically for these small businesses on topics of interest in cooperation with their partners at Lee County Extension. As a result, and with 80 percent of market vendors accepting SNAP benefits, thousands of area residents have increased access to food. The market also increases local food availability via donation, on average, of 1000+ pounds of produce to the Community Market of the Food Bank of East Alabama each year through their gleaning program. 

To learn more about O Grows, and to follow the progress of the new operation, visit the O Grows Facebook page

collage of images from the O Grows farmers market including all of the different vegetables and fruits sold

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