YPSILANTI (CBS Detroit) – A Michigan nonprofit is taking an unusual approach to help people who were formerly behind bars by offering them a chance to learn about farming.
It’s harvest season again for Melvin Parson. On his half acre farm in Ypsilanti, Parson isn’t just growing kale and tomatoes. He is also growing opportunity.
His interns take pride in the fruits of their labor, just the seeds planted but in their own lives. They are among a handful of formerly incarcerated people working on the “We the People Opportunity Farm,” which is a nonprofit founded by Parson in 2018.
The farm partners with county agencies — like the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office to hire people returning from incarceration — for nine months. Parson’s mission is to break the cycle of incarceration by providing structure, a steady paycheck and a community often missing for those reentering society.
“Because I spent 13 years of my life incarcerated, and I’ve been homeless three times and battle substance abuse, I suffered from that for long periods of time. I felt what having my hands in the soil did to me internally, and maybe, I can offer up something like this to folks coming home from incarceration as a vehicle to help,” Parsons said.
As many as 27% of formerly incarcerating Americans are out of work, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. It’s why interns at the farm are also coached on career building and financial literacy.
This year, Parson brought four participants.
When asked what was the most surprising part about the farming, Bush said, “How one seed makes a lot of stuff grow. One seed makes a big plant.”
The vegetables are all grown organically and with the help of experienced farmhands, are sold to some of the area’s most popular restaurants. A portion is also donated to the community.
Parson estimates this year’s crop totaled 14,000 pounds, and he wants to keep growing.
“My first year out here in this space was 2017. You can be a farmer that doesn’t know what they’re doing like I was and still am in a lot of ways. But if your soil is good, chances are your plants will flourish. The same thing applies to human beings,” he said.
Incarcerated when she was 17 years old, LaWanda Hollister was released after serving 34 years in prison. Now at age 52, the world has changed.
“This pandemic was still going on. I was simply grateful to be home and for the second chance. But where do I go from there?” Hollister said about coming home in May 2020.
One day, Hollister is harvesting kale. On other days, you’ll find her at Eastern Michigan University. She hopes to start her own food truck business.
“There’s a lot of life lessons in farming. It’s about taking care of a plant, it’s about nurturing it,” Parson said. “I see magic, I see hope. I see the audacity to dream, I see a future.”
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