BRISTOL — Caroline Cote, 13, is a quick study.
When she led the way down the long, narrow garden plot behind the Bristol Hub Teen Center, she rattled off the long list of plants in the garden — carrots and zucchini, lettuce and leeks, and tomatoes on the vine just starting to ripen.
In mid-August, the garden was a riot of growth. Purple and green cabbage plants had unfurled their leaves in wide circles. The broccoli was thriving. Purple beans dangled from the bean plants, waiting to be plucked, and a new round of squash flowers bloomed.
“I told the girls we could sell those to a fancy restaurant for a lot of money,” joked Erin Buckwalter, the gardener masterminding the teen center garden.
Here, all summer, roughly a dozen teenage girls from Bristol have been planting, weeding and harvesting, part of the “Leaders in Training” program run by the Mary Johnson Children’s Center.
For five years, explained Mary Johnson Program Coordinator Anne Gleason, the summertime effort has tried to harness the creativity and energy of kids ages 13 to 15.
They fall just outside of employment opportunities because they’re too young, Gleason explained, and they’ve outgrown the summer and after-school programs that Mary Johnson offers.
“These are kids who are kind of in this limbo land,” Gleason said. “We wanted them to have something positive to do.”
For the girls working at the Hub garden, that means harvesting and donating food to local senior centers, educating school children about the garden, doing face-painting at the Bristol Farmers’ Market, and concocting dishes to share with hungry teens during the Hub’s summer programs.
They’re also painting a sign for the new Bristol Community Gardens, and are hoping to work with a local artist to paint a mural at the garden.
Like all of the teens in the Leaders in Training program, these gardeners will earn a small stipend at the end of the summer in exchange for their service.
This year, it’s a girls-only kind of club at the Hub teen garden. That’s not the case for the rest of the Leaders in Training program, but Buckwalter said she thought it was important to create a space for girls to come together on their own.
“For a lot of girls, sometimes it can be really intimidating to be working on projects with boys,” Buckwalter said. “This kind of challenges them to do things they might have stepped back and let a boy do. I think, a lot of times, girls can be more timid. It just gives them a chance to challenge themselves, and learn new things, and step up in ways that they wouldn’t in a mixed-gender program.”
Stepping out of the sun into the cool dim light of the teen center, the girls on hand earlier this week — Cote; Young Joo Skiffington, 13; Samantha Gorton, 16; Aleya Chaplin, 18; Brynna-Lee Carper, 17; and Taylor Farnsworth, 14 — huddled around a cookbook to consult a recipe. Some of these teens are now employed as recreation assistants at places like the teen center after participating in the Leaders in Training program a few years ago themselves.
They began chopping up two massive zucchini for a chocolate zucchini cake, feeding slivers of the zucchini into a whirling food processor.
Looking back on the Leaders in Training program — which wraps up this week — Farnsworth said she’d especially liked volunteering with the “river camp” run by the Bristol Recreation Department. She, and other leaders in training, played with campers and helped organize some of the programs.
Cote enjoyed the team-building exercises the girls did together, and all of the girls agreed that although they might not have been gardeners before, they all felt proficient enough after a summer at the Hub to start their own gardens in the future.
Back at the teen center, most of the girls agreed they’d liked cooking with the fruits of their labor best. Once the cake was in oven, they began hunting for a recipe for zucchini bread.
Now, the Leaders in Training program has sites in Bristol, Vergennes and Middlebury. Gleason would love to see it expand in the future, though it’s hard for Mary Johnson to oversee any sort of expansion in addition to their current duties.
“There’s so much potential there for leadership training,” she said. “It’s kind of one of the hallmarks of kids that age: they feel they can change the world.”