By teaching youth to farm, bake, and sell their wares, New City Neighbors equips them to change Grand Rapids.
Avrey Smith is 16, and bakery director at New City Neighbors. For seven weeks this summer, he woke up at 7:10 a.m. to oversee a small, hot commercial kitchen and the ten middle school students baking in it.
New City Neighbors is a nonprofit that grew out of Fourth Reformed Church in the heart of Grand Rapids, Michigan. It encompasses a farm, a bakery, an afterschool program, a summer day camp, and a neighborhood community garden. They all work toward one thing: a vision of peace and prosperity for the area’s Creston neighborhood, accomplished by empowering young people.
Smith, a warm and earnest high school junior, got connected to New City Neighbors in third grade when he started going to New City Breaktime, the day camp for elementary students. When he graduated from fifth grade, he was old enough to start working in the bakery, which provides job training and customer service experience to middle schoolers. In eighth grade, he became a leader-in-training, assisting the bakery’s then-director Eric Schalk, who was also New City’s executive director. Smith spent the summer before his freshman year working on New City Urban Farm, which employs high school students year-round to work the fields, interact with CSA (community-supported agriculture) members, and cook meals for each other and for the CSA.
And then, this spring, he got a call from Schalk, who was leaving his role at New City Neighbors to become the pastor of Fourth Reformed.
“I was laying in bed, and I got a call from Eric,” Smith says. “He said, ‘Oh hey, Avrey, I was thinking, would you like to run the bakery?’
“[I thought,] ‘I’m only 15—you were just running it for 10 years! Holy moly!’ Now I get to run the bakery. I get to help change lives the way mine has been changed so much already.”
“He’s everything I hope for a kid who grows up in the ministry and then takes my job,” laughs Schalk. He says Smith epitomizes the hopes New City Neighbors has for the children and youth who take part in its programs. On a summer day, you might find a few high schoolers harvesting tomatoes in the field and a neighbor watering her plot in the adjacent community garden. In the shade of the farm stand, a pair of middle school girls makes change for bakery customers. Head inside the church, and be bombarded with the yeasty fragrance of cinnamon rolls and the happy shrieks of children let loose for free time.
“What’s holding all [the New City programs] together is our desire to work with kids holistically and long-term,” says Schalk. The nonprofit addresses students’ academic, social, and spiritual development.
“We’re always trying to point the kids to Christ, help them grow in their faith, and grapple with some of the questions that they’re trying to figure out,” says Alaina Dobkowski, New City’s current executive director and a member of Fourth Reformed, speaking about the elementary-age programs. “Sometimes kids have a lot on their plates, whether it’s at home or [school] … so creating a safe environment where kids can just be kids is really important.”
By working in the bakery, on the farm, or as mentors in the elementary programs, middle and high school students develop a strong work ethic and an ability to talk comfortably with customers. By the time students graduate from high school, if they’ve put in the effort, they’re better prepared for college or the workplace. Hot, humid days spent weeding will do that to a person.
“It’s a vicious cycle to try and get started without experience,” says Joel Schramm, the kitchen director. “I view us as a true middle ground. We’re not giving paychecks and internships to people who can’t handle it. We have expectations and rules, but we’re more flexible than a standard for-profit business would be. By the time students are coming out of [our] pipeline, they’re definitely ready [to hold a job].”
But not every student ends up with a story like Smith’s. Some simply don’t commit. Others move out of the neighborhood.
“A lot of people want to hear that we worked with a hundred kids this year and the neighborhood is like the Garden of Eden all over again,” says Schalk. “But that’s not the case. Ministry takes a long time. The fruit is a significant process in the making—that’s why we grab on to those subtle shifts.”
For some students, a summer at Breaktime means they learned to read. For others, the summer brings them to faith in Christ. Whatever the change, it has implications for the neighborhood. Connecting with youth allows New City to connect with their families and learn what’s important to them, says Dobkowski. “When you look to youth, and you help build them up and help them grow, it benefits the whole community.”
Although Fourth Reformed hosts New City Neighbors on its land and in its building, New City is an independent nonprofit, which has encouraged nearby churches and neighbors to invest themselves more readily than if it were the program of a single church. The combined involvement means more opportunities for neighborhood transformation.
New City Urban Farm uses food as a vehicle for that transformation, staying local by limiting its scope.
“We want to see food grown in the neighborhood, by the neighborhood, and for the neighborhood,” says Kraai. In his experience, a farm in an urban space changes how the neighborhood eats and interacts, especially when that food is grown by young people who live there. A quarter of the farm’s CSA members live within a mile, and all live within 10 miles.
Of course, the city is bigger than the Creston neighborhood, and there’s room for other churches and nonprofits to do similar work.
“I want people to do [this kind of work] in their neighborhood,” says Kraai, “but it should be your neighborhood. It might not look at all like this. … What does that neighborhood want? What does that place ask for?”
In the case of New City Neighbors, the farm was possible because Fourth Reformed had three acres of land. The bakery came about because Schalk loved baking and knew that the youth group did too.
And slowly, subtly, it’s changing the neighborhood.
“We’re trying to create this new city where God’s work is evident, where neighbors come,” says Schalk. “I like to believe we’ve been a stabilizing force in the neighborhood. People in the neighborhood know kids are coming here and have a safe place, and they’re appreciative of that.
“Kids have come to Jesus and their attitudes and lives have changed. It’s incredible.”
Get a 360° view of the farm and watch the bakers on the RCA Today app.
Visit www.rca.org/localmission to think about ways to transform your block.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org for ideas on connecting with youth in your area.