“We were homeless, hitchhiking, hippyish travelers. We met at a music festival,” said Nathan Smith, Philosophy major, about his first encounter with Cheyenne Noel.
Together, they founded Sprout Initiative, a nonprofit which creates opportunities for college students and homeless youth to cultivate purpose and build community.
“During our travels, we went to a lot of soup kitchens, drop-ins, etc. For what they offered, we were, and are, very grateful,” Smith said.
“Receiving help and sustenance when in need is, well, much needed, and it’s reassuring to know that someone cares. However, I recall that what had the most impact was when someone would come up and invite us to dinner. We’d break bread, share stories and hug before parting ways. In those moments, I felt human, rather than homeless.”
“When you live that life for some time, it gets to be that those around you are either homeless, caseworkers or just another passerby. Case workers, as nice as they may be, often view you as homeless. From every direction, the message you get is, ‘You are homeless.’ That becomes your identity. The times when someone sees you and treats you and makes you feel like you’re simply another person – they offer a momentary break from that feeling of isolation and exile.”
Early 2016, Noel and Smith envisioned a plan for a peer mentorship program. It would pair four college students with four similarly aged homeless youth. Together, they learn about gardening and work toward sustainability.
“Being outdoors and working the earth helps keep you grounded,” he said. “And since the reason everyone’s there is to learn how to garden, you instantly level the playing field. No one’s homeless. No one’s a student. We’re just learning how to grow food and feed others. We are driven toward community, connection and engagement. Empowerment, wellness and advocacy. Those seeds are sown in everyone’s minds and they sprout things like, ‘Go to college, be a leader, be your best self.’”
When asked what inspired him, he said, “If I can see one person, just one, go from where I used to be – miserable, jaded, living on the street with no hope or direction – to where I am. In college, happy, productive, part of an amazing community, I just might cry. When we started, four people expressed interest. Two showed up. One stayed with us.”
Sprout Initiative does weekly outreach at New Bethany Ministries in downtown Bethlehem. That’s where they met Jose.
“He was living under a bridge when we met. He was considering selling drugs to get by,” Smith said. “Instead, he now has a full-time job and lives in a transitional housing program. He’s saving for his own place and he’s talking about going to college.”
“He said it’s literally been since we showed up that he realized it really is about who you surround yourself with. He said that because we’ve been there, he looked around and decided to make changes in his life. So, when he goes back to school, I might (expletive) cry.”
Sprout Initiative applied for a grant from the Center for Civic and Community Engagement. After they were approved, they quickly got to work.
“To uphold our commitment to the grant team, we started in February,” he said. “At the time, it was too cold to do much at the garden, so we scrambled to put together workshops and outings. It was a learning experience. We grew a lot and developed valuable life skills.”
“Many things were modified and our focus has expanded. We now include community and cultural exposure, in addition to sustainable agriculture. Our vision has not changed. Our evolution allows us to better serve our mission and community.”