Youth Planting Change: Bridging the Urban/Suburban Divide

By Grace Jin – 12th Grade, North Allegheny Senior High School


Photo © Nick Koehler

Only 15 miles separate Grandview Elementary in the city of Pittsburgh and North Allegheny Senior High School (NASH) in Wexford, but to meet one another, the 130 pen-pals from Youth Planting Change did more than ride a school bus. They crossed a suburban/urban divide enforced by socioeconomic, racial, and political differences.

When I was 11, I went to a Pittsburgh Public School where over 60% of kids qualified for free lunch. When I moved to North Allegheny, that number became less than 3%. I soon noticed the “bubble” that I lived in: suburban and inner-city kids rarely got a chance to learn or play together, and each side’s perception of the other was largely based on stereotypes, poverty statistics, or TV sitcoms. Without Youth Planting Change, these students may have never crossed paths.

garden (2)

Amanda, Maurice, Catherine, and Tiaundra in the garden

The Youth Planting Change project is like a seed; watered by passionate individuals, it grew and blossomed over the past two years. In 2013, NASH graduate Bret Anne Serbin won $1,000 from the “No Child Hungry” writing contest and decided to improve food-security through education. With the help of teachers Janellen Lombardi and Kathy Will, NASH student leaders initiated pen-pal partnerships with Grandview Elementary. On Earth Day 2014, 60 students from both schools got together to learn about healthy-eating, visit the Mt. Washington overlook, and plant a schoolyard garden (which produced enough for everyone to enjoy a huge salad on the last day of school). Yes, the plants had been harvested, but the project had just begun.

This year, over 130 students continued the partnership. With generous donations from The Northern Allegheny Rotary Club, the Rockledge Garden Club, and Phipps Conservatory, the pen-pals reunited in April and once again in May. They planted tomatoes, lettuce, peas, eggplants, carrots, radishes, and a variety of new seeds in the garden. The high schoolers provided reading, math, and science tutoring for the kids, wrote encouraging notes to promote success on the PSSA’s, and finished the day with long-lasting memories and a fun dance party.

Here are some reflections from the Grandview kids:

  • Larry: “I loved kickball. One reason is that we dominated the high schoolers.”
  • Gena: “My favorite part was the dance party, and my favorite song was ‘Teach me how to Dougie.'”
  • Ellia: “I liked NA because there was a big cafeteria. Their school was so nice, and everyone there was so nice to me!”
  • Kashmer: “I also really liked the story Ms. Baker read because it tells us how we can be anything we want to be.”
  • David: “Thank you for letting us come to your school. It was really, really, really fun!”

It is an understatement to say that Youth Planting Change was an eye-opening experience for students from both schools. My pen-pal and BFF Keyon may have a different skin color and live in a different neighborhood than I do, but we have so much more in common: our love for books, our skills of playing kickball and dancing the “Nae-Nae,” and our dreams of traveling the world. Overcoming differences to understand the similarities – that is what Youth Planting Change is about.


Let’s dance!

Earlier this year, I submitted a proposal for an Opal Apples Youth Make a Difference Grant of $5,000. We are celebrating the good news that Youth Planting Change was chosen as a grant winner! We hope to make the most out of the support we’ve been shown by reaching out to community partners and inspiring others to plant seeds of change. With continued mentorship, the Grandview garden as well as the seeds of knowledge will grow and flourish in the future.


Grace JinGrace Jin is a senior at North Allegheny Senior High School. She has edited for VARIATIONS magazine, won Scholastics awards, and published multiple pieces on Teen Ink print magazine. Grace lives in McCandless and loves to play piano, paint, and eat ice-cream.


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