Sweet Potato Project participants with Congressman Jim Costa, during the Sweet Potato harvest, Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022. Credit: Dympna Ugwu-Oju

what's at stake

The program teaches the students how to bounce back from all the hardships they go through, like loss of family, poverty, lack of support, lack of safety and intense peer pressure. 

On the crisply cold Saturday morning before Halloween, approximately 50 young people, ages 12-15, wearing broad farmers’ straw hats and white T-shirts emblazoned with the “Sweet Potato Project,” mingled with an impressive lineup of guests.

Mark Salazar, the Fresno Police’s deputy chief, told the students to recognize they’re “part of a special program” and to “learn hard work” because it pays off, “even when you have challenges at home, your neighborhood or whatever, it’s just going to give you grit, that toughness.”

“Do well in school because you’re our future,” Congressman Jim Costa told the students. “If you do well as adults, America does well. It’s not rocket science, you are our future, and that’s why we’re here.”

The gathering of more than 150 people at Kearney Park in West Fresno marked the beginning of the harvest of the two acres of sweet potatoes that the young people planted in the springas part of the Sweet Potato Project.

The group will celebrate the end of the harvest Saturday with the Sweet Potato Festival, featuring the youth selling and highlighting their sweet potato products at the Farmers Market Triangle on Klette and Kern avenues 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

By that time, their farm will have yielded an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 pounds of sweet potatoes, some of which may make their way to your Thanksgiving dinner table.

“Fresno Unified buys them, Poverello House buys them, our Asian community and others in my community. We also sell to different agencies,” said Patrick Hamilton, manager of the Sweet Potato Project.

To ‘salvage a few of them from going in the wrong direction’

It is no secret that public policy makers, educational leaders, parents, teachers and philanthropists invest a great deal of energy and resources trying to find sustainable solutions to systems that have failed young people, especially in Black and Latino communities, such as lower academic success and graduation rates, high rates of criminality, gang affiliation, incarceration, involvement in drugs and becoming parents at a young age.

But what if the solutions can be found locally, right here in Fresno, and that all that is required are innovative leadership and a community that has tried everything else and has nothing more to lose?

Then throw in a few middle and high school students, and a program is born — the Sweet Potato Project, a pilot program run by the West Fresno Family Resource Center, now in its fifth year.

The Sweet Potato Project, according to its mission, recognizes the great challenges facing the young people growing up in the neighborhood, located in the southern half of Fresno’s “Tale of Two Cities,” where residents are mostly Black, Latino and Asian populations, and are more likely to live in high-poverty. West Fresno has the second-highest rate in the nation.

It is home to the city’s most vulnerable residents as well as the city’s dirtiest factories, poorest-performing schools, crumbling infrastructure, and accommodations with greatest livability concerns and fewer economic opportunities.

Additionally, this is one of the areas with the lowest level of academic achievement in the city of Fresno.

Nearly 38% of adults older than 25 years old in the area do not have high school diplomas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for 2016-2020. Lack of educational attainment is often associated with low earnings and poverty.

Schools in this neighborhood are among the lowest performing in the city. According to the 2019 School Performance Overview on the Fresno Unified School District website, King Elementary, where a number of the program’s participants attended, scores lower than the district’s overall average in all measurements.

Helping disadvantaged youth succeed is what motivated Earl Hall, owner of Hall Management Corp., a labor contracting company, to donate a truck and several trailers and other heavy equipment to help the children with the farming.

Yolanda Randles, (second from left) executive director of the West Fresno Family Resource Center, with participants of the Sweet Potato Project during the harvest on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022. Credit: Courtesy of the West Fresno Family Resource Center

“I know funding comes from somewhere, but it doesn’t always cover everything,” said Hall, who also serves on the board of the foundation for the Jordan School of Agricultural Sciences and Technology at Fresno State. “You can’t do anything without some of these tools [the machinery].”

“If we can just salvage a few of them [the students] from going in the wrong direction,” Hall said, “we’ve accomplished something.”

How the program works

Patrick Hamilton, manager of the Sweet Potato Project, said the idea for the project came from St. Louis, Missouri, where a similar program is still being run. The West Fresno Family Resource Center launched the first cohort in 2017 with about 35 students completing successfully.

Since its launch, more than 200 students have gone through the program. Hamilton said the funding by the Fresno County’s behavioral health department has enabled the program to break the cohort into two groups — middle school and high school groups — so they can handle age-appropriate topics with them.

“With the high school class, we’re more focused on high school drop out, prostitution and drugs, versus the junior high school class,” he said.

The nine-month program for middle school through high school-aged students is broken up into two phases. In the first phase spanning April to July, students meet weekly as they are introduced to the program’s goals and expectations and begin to discuss life, school and community issues. They also learn about urban agriculture and sustainability and plant sweet potatoes on two acres of land operated by the African American Farmers group.

Also during this stage, the students participate in entrepreneurial and business skills training at the Lyles School of Business at Fresno State, where they learn how to create a business and marketing plan to turn sweet potatoes into a product that could be sold.

In the second stage, from August to December, the students harvest potatoes and use their acquired entrepreneurial and business skills to market the sweet potatoes and their products, including attending farmer’s markets and cultural events.

Additionally, they participate in community service and continue to meet weekly to learn leadership and mental health resilience skills. The program concludes in the winter with an end-of-year celebration.

How do the program managers keep the kids engaged, week after week?

“We try to make each activity fun and something that they can all master,” Hamilton said,adding that the trick is for the kids to not feel “like they’re being lectured.” He said that when the kids “ask the questions, they automatically know what’s going on, versus me sitting up here lecturing. Through activities, I try to make it worth their while.”

The students are paid a monthly stipend of $50, plus additional money for taking on extra tasks, a part that many of the participants say they appreciate a great deal.

“It is a commitment because the kids are actually going out in the field; they’re irrigating, they’re planting, harvesting,” explained Yolanda Randles, executive director of the West Fresno Family Resource Center. “One of the things that we want to be able to show the kids is that this is hard work, but then, here is like your reward for hard work, and you have to get up and work for what you need.“

William Holifield, 12, a seventh grader at West Fresno Middle School, said he has learned a lotin his year of participating, but that his favorite part so far has been earning money. He has already received $150, all of which he has invested in stocks.

Zaryah Davis, also 12, said that in addition to earning $150 so far and learning how to invest her earnings, the program has helped her to be more outgoing. She said, “I used to be shy, but the more I come here, the more I come out of my shell.”

Sweet Potato Project participant, Jay-Lynn Rodriguez with Earl Hall, owner of Hall Management Corp., near a tractor donated by Hall, during the Sweet Potato harvest, Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022. Credit: Dympna Ugwu-Oju

‘We try to provide some type of hope’

The program is a lot more than just potatoes, said Hamilton, who was born and raised in Fresno and is a graduate of McLane High School. He said he is committed to ensuring that the students in his program avoid the mistakes he made in his earlier life.

“I was a father at 17,” Hamilton, now a father of six, said. “I was in a hurry to grow up.”

He credits his strong and supportive family with helping him withstand peer pressure — a privilege that most of the students in the program do not have.

Still, it took some incidents that caused him “to lose a couple of people to face reality and try to kind of wake up.” He is now determined to prevent that trauma for his students.

“We try to provide [the participants] some type of hope, the dream that they need to succeed,” Hamilton said during an interview with Fresnoland on Oct. 27. “We teach them resiliency, how to bounce back” from all the hardships they go through, like loss of family, poverty, lack of support, lack of safety and intense peer pressure.

“We put a lot of emphasis on counseling and teaching them everything about life, to kind of prepare, especially the younger ones, for things that they may be encountering once they leave here,” Hamilton said.

Participants of the Sweet Potato Project during the 2021 harvest. Credit: Courtesy of the West Fresno Family Resource Center

It’s about mental health and wellbeing

Ahmad Bahrami, division manager with Fresno County’s behavioral health department, said the county embraced the Sweet Potato Project for several reasons, including not already having a “behavioral mental health program that targeted our African American community.”

Also, “the community has already identified something that works for our African American youth… so it makes more sense for us to align and support them, than come in from the outside and say, ‘here’s what you need to do.’”

Bahrami said the program is very important in addressing mental health concerns in the community, by engaging the youth and preventatively avoiding problems in their future.

To create the partnership, his office eventually “came up with something that we thought was not just viable, but it was equitable for the community, because it was driven and developed with input from those community partners as well.”

‘A sense of togetherness’

Jointly funded by the State’s California Reducing Disparity program, a Prevention and Early Intervention initiative by the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA, Proposition 63) and Fresno County’s behavioral health department, this after-school educational/recreational program helps at-risk youth in southwest Fresno develop positive “self-esteem, socio-emotional wellbeing, leadership, agribusiness, and entrepreneurial skills,” while counteracting the negative influences they face in their lives daily, according to information on the website of the West Fresno Family Resource Center.

Patrick Hamilton (L) with some Sweet Potato Project participants at the 2021 Edison High School graduation celebration. Credit: Courtesy of the West Fresno Family Resource Center

According to a three-year evaluation (2018-2021) of the program conducted by the Central Valley Health Policy Institute (CVHPI), “the Sweet Potato Project helps students build their own community and gives them somewhere positive to build relationships with family, peers, and project staff.”

Hamilton, the project manager, explained, “We give a sense of togetherness — keeping each other in line, keeping each other’s heads in the right direction, and together, we can work through it because it’s hard by yourself.

“We all have problems at home, we all have issues that we deal with. And maybe another person already went through it before and can help out and give him some coping skills, so, don’t give up.”

There is no data yet on the academic benefits of this program, but Hamilton cites anecdotal evidence showing that the majority of the students who join the program graduate high school and go on to college or the military. In fact, a number of the children are in dual enrollment programs and earning college credits while still in high school.

The real immediate benefit is the sense of community and togetherness that the program provides for the participants.

“It unifies us as a whole,” said Jay-Lynn Rodriguez, a 16-year-old sophomore at Edison High School, who is in the program.

Hamilton said the students are occupied, engaged, supported to build their resiliency and ability to resist peer pressure.

“We’re trying to teach them to think outside the box and to never take no for an answer,” Hamilton said. “And even if you do lose, look at it as a win, because now you know, now you have an understanding of what to do and what not to.”

Most importantly, they build their own communities and their self confidence and learn how to control impulses and stay focused on their goals.

“Because we’re here in southwest Fresno, which is an underserved community here in Fresno, this program is so much more essential,” Rodriguez said.

“We learn to give back. This year, we have done backpack giveaways; we did a COVID vaccination,” Rodriguez said. “So we do influential things that impact the community, that helps them out, as well as bringing us closer together.”

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Dr. Dympna Ugwu-Oju is the senior editor for Fresnoland.