working together at the Farm & Food Explorers Program

Photos in this article by Nina Berry.

This year, for the first time since 1974, Hawthorne Valley did not hold its summer camps. Our campus was unusually quiet. The paths forged by campers for the last 46 years were overgrown with grasses, bushes, and weeds. Summer 2020 is not one we will soon forget or wish to repeat.

Hawthorne Valley was founded in 1971 with the goal of creating a learning campus where children from urban centers could live on and learn from the land that provides their food. What started as a program for residential school visits soon led to the establishment of a residential summer camp program.

Over the years, Hawthorne Valley has come to include diverse initiatives and enterprises that have grown, shrunk, and evolved, but the constant through it all has been the children visiting the farm through our Place Based Learning Center. In 2009, thanks to a generous grant, we expanded our primarily residential offerings to include day programming accessible to more children in our locality. The flagship of those day programs is Kids Can Cook: A Farm-to-Table Day Camp, which served as our main outreach to children from low-income areas of the City of Hudson.

It comes as no surprise that the COVID-19 outbreak completely shuttered our programs. With students learning remotely across the country, there were no more school trips. Our staff held out hope for the possibility of summer camp, but with each passing week, it was clear that opening a residential camp—even if camps were allowed to open—would be unrealistic, especially given our need to limit access to our farm to protect the health of our farmers. We considered continuing with our day camp, but in the end, we followed our County Board of Supervisors recommendation that the camps remain closed for this summer.

You can imagine our heartbreak. This program that had welcomed thousands of children to our farm was closed, and the staff that so beautifully provided programming for those children had to be laid off.

Yet even in those moments of sadness, some of our dedicated staff members found ways to continue the work, maintaining relationships with partnering organizations and providing programming to children much in need of the healing calm of working with their hands to prepare food and create art.

Farm and Food Explorers

As the summer drew closer, Indigo Ocean and her fellow program manager Nina Barry knew there would be an incredible need for outdoor activities for kids who had been cooped up and attached to their computers for months due to the pandemic. They also wanted to maintain the collaborations that had been established over the years by Indigo with organizations in Hudson that support youth. Out of that desire, the pair partnered with the Hudson Department of Youth and Kite’s Nest to run a Farm and Food Explorers program at The River City Garden.

“It was a beautiful 5 weeks of programming centered around making delicious food from the Children’s Garden at Hawthorne Valley,” said Nina. “We made garlic bread, salads, solar oven pizza, tacos, and ice cream all with farm fresh ingredients. The children also worked on nature-based arts projects, ceramic pots we then planted herbs in, wool felted soaps, water bottle holders, bandanas and more.”

Hawthorne Valley has always believed that hands-on learning allows children to thrive as they develop new skills, build self-confidence in their abilities, and learn to work with others. This summer, after months of isolation, Indigo and Nina saw the benefits even more starkly, and made all the challenges of creating a safe learning environment well-worth it.

“Many of the children said they’d been spending a lot of time indoors watching TV or playing video games because their parents had to work,” Indigo said. “The children quickly warmed up to each other and were so happy to connect with our team and the other children. The kids were quite sad on the last day and we wished it didn’t have to end!”

Summer Block Party

To finish out the summer, Indigo and Nina continued their volunteer work in Hudson, this time partnering with Mayor Kamal Johnson and Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood for their Summer Block Party. Indigo and Nina lead a socially-distanced jump rope making station—a Kids Can Cook favorite activity—as part of the festivities!


The jump rope maker

Indigo and Nina remain committed to continuing these relationships and programs in Hudson. They are working with the Hudson Department of Youth to create a safe and enriching after school program in the future. All the while, they–and all our PBLC staff–are looking forward to a time when children can once again come to Hawthorne Valley Farm to experience the beauty and wonder the farm has to offer.

Summer Youth Employment Program

Indigo Ocean has led Kids Can Cook since its second year in 2010. As part of her work, she also leads in-school and after school programming in the City of Hudson, and maintains relationships with local social workers, collaborating organizations, and the children in her programs.

It was a social worker in Hudson who first mentioned the idea of Hawthorne Valley partnering with Columbia-Greene Workforce Development to Indigo as a way to hire junior counselors for Kids Can Cook.

“This really started as a way to keep a former camper, Kenny, who had aged out of the program connected to the work and provide him with job skills,” Indigo said. “He’s such a great kid and very self-motivated, and it was great to have him working here.”

Kenny working in the bakery at Hawthorne ValleyWhen it became clear that camp wouldn’t run because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Indigo did not want to leave these youths without a summer work experience. She reached out to Zachary Fox Hill, Sales & Production Director at Hawthorne Valley, to come up with placements in the artisan food departments so these youths could still have a summer work experience.

Kenny, of Hudson, spent six weeks in Hawthorne Valley’s on-site organic bakery, learning the ins and outs involved, from cleaning and sanitizing to folding dough and packaging finished products.

“I joined the Summer Youth Employment Program to try something new and save up some cash,” says Kenny. “It was a great six weeks. I loved making breads and pizzas and socializing with my coworkers.”

“This has been a positive experience for the bakery team and Kenny as well,” says Delsia Hilton, Hawthorne Valley Bakery Supervisor. “We have had an extra set of hands, and he gained some work experience and bakery knowledge. I hope we are able to do this again in the future. The whole team would look forward to it.”

The second youth split their time working with both the organic bakery and creamery.

“The youth was able to help out in almost every aspect of production during our busiest time of year, and it was so nice to have someone that was compassionate and hardworking, even it was just for a short time,” Jeremy Shapiro, Creamery Operations Supervisor says, “We are very grateful for programs like these in which the community and local businesses are working for the greater good!”

To learn more about the Place Based Learning Center, please visit their website.

 Support Hudson Youth

If you are interested in supporting the work with youth in Hudson, please consider supporting one of these two wonderful Hudson-based organizations

Donate to Kite’s Nest

Support Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood


About Columbia-Greene Workforce Development

Each summer, the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) matches youth, ages 14-20, from Columbia and Greene Counties with employers in a variety of fields to gain valuable work experience. Columbia Greene Workforce Staff work with the youth to match their interests to worksites. The Summer Youth Employment Program is grant funded. Eligible youth generally receive 25-30 hours of work per week. Summer youth wages and workman’s compensation are paid by Columbia Greene Workforce. This allows local businesses to provide job training and get extra summer help without having the extra labor expenses.

For more information about becoming a worksite or youth participant with the Columbia-Greene Workforce Development Summer Youth Program, visit their website.