Highly underestimated and overlooked — that’s how youths at Emma Wheeler Homes public housing development are seen, say Samantha Oliver and Josephine Wortham.
Both women say they want people to see the children’s potential.
“These kids are so bright and so smart and they have so much talent, but they are overlooked because of where they live,” said Oliver, who works with about 70 youths ages 3 to 18 who call themselves Club Jesus Youth Club.
Oliver and a host of youths and adults gathered Tuesday at the Emma Wheeler Homes Recreation Center to celebrate the group’s latest accomplishment, a 16-bed community garden full of squash, summer berries, okra, greens, pumpkins and lettuce.
“People see our children as gangbangers or thugs,” said Oliver. “These are just children who have had nothing to do. Leave a child unattended for long periods of time and any child will get in trouble, but that makes them no less bright, no less brilliant than any other child.”
The garden gives the youths productive exercise that is educational, helpful and fun, Oliver said. It also feeds about 17 families who live in a community that is not within easy walking distance of a grocery store.
The Emma Wheeler garden is one of more than 25 gardens that the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department’s Step One program has helped fund. The Step One program gave a $1,000 grant to Wortham, Oliver’s mother, who showed the youths how to garden.
“The young people are already screaming, ‘We’re going to make it bigger next year,’” said Wortham. “They know if you put your heart and soul into doing something positive, then you can have more positive come back to you.”
With no music and no microphone, 18-year-old Donta Williams and 17-year-old Devante Morris projected their voices during the garden celebration, performing a rap song in gratitude to Wortham.
“I was telling Ms. J, ‘Thank you,’” said Morris. “I’ve been shot at, been in trouble, but she’s been by my side.”
Quantearra Colvin, 14, recited a poem about Wortham, and several girls and boys participated in a dance.
“We’re going to help people. If they need food they can come get it,” said 9-year-old Joshua Gray, who danced Tuesday and has helped water vegetables in the garden.
Wortham, a 54-year-old mother of four, started a garden in her backyard in 2010 when she wanted to create a productive activity for children playing near her home. With no money or equipment, she started the garden with about a dozen young people and already-purchased seeds. They dug with her own butter and butcher knives.
Step One Manager John Bilderback said seeing Wortham’s undertaking prompted Step One to help.
“Anybody who is going to till the soil with a butcher knife, to me, is somebody that, if you give them some resources, they’re going to do something like this,” said Bilderback, waving his hand over the community garden, located near the Emma Wheeler Homes housing office.
“These are people who are going to change the neighborhood,” he said. “They’re going to make it a better place.”
Yolanda Putman has been a reporter at the Times Free Press for 11 years. She covers housing and previously covered education and crime. Yolanda is a Chattanooga native who has a master’s degree in communication from the University of Tennessee and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Alabama State University. She previously worked at the Lima (Ohio) News. She enjoys running, reading and writing and is the mother of one son, Tyreese. She has also ...