Jennie Cook asked her daughter and RootDown volunteer, Lindsay Cook, to write a profile of Ana Torres and Karen Ramirez, two RDLA staffers - two moms on a mission. Here's part one. As the saying goes "there's no one you can't love, if you knew their story." Read on...
It was a warm Saturday morning in South Los Angeles and the parking lot at Jefferson High School was unsurprisingly empty. Walking through the school that had been abandoned for the weekend felt slightly odd. The courtyards that should have been full of students were eerily quiet, discarded chip bags and empty soda bottles, the only evidence of the sixteen hundred teenagers who usually fill the campus.In the back corner of the school, nestled between the baseball field and a few mobile trailers being used as classrooms, there was a decidedly different scene. More than 30 teenagers were at their own high school on a Saturday, hard at work in the school's edible garden. Signs hand painted on scrap pieces of cardboard led those unfamiliar with the Jefferson High campus to the half-acre garden's entrance. At the gate, first-time volunteers and returning students alike were met by a pretty, young Latina woman, ready with an enthusiastic smile, and very pregnant- Karen Ramirez, 22 identified herself as RootDown LA's project manager. Ramirez greeted everyone, made sure they signed themselves in, and directed folks to different areas throughout the garden depending on need and interest.
Off in one corner, Elizabeth, a junior at Jefferson High with the teenage prerequisites of braces, skinny jeans, and a need to photo document every moment, explained to new arrivals that she was "layering carbon-rich mulch on top of nitrogen-rich food scraps and weeds," in order to keep the compost "efficient and healthy."
Out of the sun, under a gazebo, Andres Chopin, Ramirez's partner, a Jefferson grad, and fellow alum of the RootDown LA program, was using skills newly acquired from culinary school, to lead a team of five teenagers as they cooked a healthy lunch from scratch for all the volunteers.
Throughout the rest of the garden the voice of Jonathan Galindez, another Jefferson High and RootDown alum, could be heard encouraging kids to "get dirty" as they weeded, planted, and pruned. Tools were strewn about the loud garden, both English and Spanish could be heard, as the bilingual teenagers effortlessly switched between the two.
Getting teenagers to school on a Saturday sounds like a daunting task. To have them work while they're there? Impossible. Not for the folks at RootDown LA. Karen Ramirez, who was a student with RootDown LA when she was a senior at Jefferson high and the organization was in its nascent stages, credits founder and Director Megan Hanson for creating a program focused on empowerment.
As Ramirez sees it, it's pretty straight forward, the reason RootDown works is because there are people involved who know the youth, the community, and the mission: don't just improve access to healthy food for the youth of South Los Angeles, create it. Grow it. Cook it. Hanson founded the organization with friend Katy Atkiss in 2008, and in only a few years most of the day-to-day workings of RootDown LA, from recruitment, to garden management, to teaching cooking classes, are carried out by the young-adults who themselves went through the program as teenagers. The brunt of the work-load falling on the shoulders of two young moms, Karen Ramirez and Anna Torres.
Karen Ramirez, who is now the programs manager says that "most of the parents in this neighborhood aren't from here, a lot of the kids aren't either, they're used to the mercados [markets] in Mexico where you get fresh produce and milk from the granjero [farmer] who's just down the road." She said that when her parents moved here when she was 4 months-old, they had trouble adjusting. "There wasn't anywhere nearby for my mom to walk to and get enough fresh produce for the whole family on her budget, so it wasn't a part of our lives like it was in Mexico."
Then Ramirez joined RootDown LA, she began cooking organic vegetables from the garden at school and from Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, stores Ramirez said she "never knew existed before RootDown. There aren't any stores like that around here, Fresh n' Easy is the only place you can get organic produce." But even that is a fifteen minute drive from Ramirez's house, and opened less than two years ago. Ramirez, who is just welcomed her daughter into the world last month, says diabetes is a real fear for her and her family, but it is a fear she feels more prepared to conquer now that she has the tools and knowledge garnered from her work with RootDown.