ALAMEDA -- Seven women stood in the Alameda Point Collaborative urban farm, and with an audience of friends, family and some buzzing bees, graduated from a six month, on-the-job training program.
For many of the graduates of varying ages and backgrounds, the moment on July 31 marked a turning point or another step toward decent employment, further education and independence.
More than half of the graduates had worked on the farm during the six months, and so it was only appropriate that they received the graduation certificates amidst the fruits of their labor: rows of tomatoes, tangled cucumber vines, weeded beds of squash, and a canopy laden with perfectly round, unripe passion fruit.
Cassandra Martin, wearing a crisp black jacket and a fresh bob haircut, told the assembled audience that at first the farm work was so physically difficult that she, "struggled every day to keep it together." She persevered, and in the process developed a love for kale, which will serve her well at her new job at Wonky, a kale chip manufacturer in Alameda.
"I actually drove a fork lift," she said with a laugh.
Things weren't always moving in a positive direction for Martin, however. Before finding a home and support at APC last year, she had been living in a downtown Oakland homeless shelter for four years.
Martin's story, and many others like it, prove that APC is fulfilling its mission to provide housing and hope for homeless families in the East Bay. Founded in 1999, APC renovated the former Naval Air Station to provide 200 units of supportive housing for 500 formerly homeless residents, of which more than 300 are children. All the current residents were homeless when they applied to APC.
In addition to subsidized housing (residents pay 30 percent of their income to live at APC, an average of $200 a month), the organization offers social enterprise and workforce development services, which includes the training program. Many residents need these additional programs to help rebuild their lives -- over half were victims of domestic abuse, some have disabilities, and many were homeless for years before applying to the housing community project.
Faris Wallace, APC education and employment coordinator, said many people need to learn or relearn basic job skills, like interviewing and time management, or fill gaps in their resume and work experience.
"People need to reinvent themselves," she said.
The urban farm's role at the collective has changed significantly in the past year. Executive Director Doug Biggs explained that they began the urban farm almost six years ago as a way to address food insecurity in the community, but realized that it was very hard to change people's behavior when it comes to eating. For many years, APC also tried to use the farm as a youth program, but Farm Coordinator Evan Krokowski said that it was a bit "like herding cats."
So, in the spring of 2012, they combined the farm with the training program and established a Farm2Market community supported agriculture program. Now, in addition to 20-plus hours of mandatory work-readiness class, training participants can choose between jobs in the career center, with the APC newsletter, with the children and youth program, or on the farm.
"The farm is now a tool to help them learn basic job skills, like how to show up at work, take directions and to succeed," Biggs said.
Trainees on the farm are responsible for planting, harvesting and distributing the produce every Sunday morning at the Buena Vista Methodist Church in Alameda. Business has more than doubled in the last year, said Krokowski, and about 40 people receive the weekly produce.
For Krokowski, it's a rewarding challenge to keep the one-acre farm functioning and growing when his crew changes completely every six months. And by "change completely," he means the people, but also their personalities, background, and hang-ups.
"People hear 'formerly homeless' and think it's the same thing for everyone, when actually it can mean a thousand different things," Krokowski said. "People come from totally different backgrounds."
For this particular graduating class, Connie Mata and Daisy Saffold are preparing to take their GEDs, Sheldridge Jones is working to complete her bachelor's degree, and Martin and Michele Alfaro will be beginning new jobs soon. From August to January, a whole new group will embark on the on-the-job training program to develop job skills and personal goals.
"(They come from) so many different starting points, but they all flourish in their own way," said Wallace, with a smile.