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Fred Pace/The Herald-Dispatch Stepping Stones has partnered with UniCare Health Plan of West Virginia to develop agriculture program for its tiny home village that includes a 1,200-square-foot greenhouse and hydroponic tower garden.

WAYNE — About two years ago, Stepping Stones Inc. had the idea for a first-of-its kind tiny home village in the 1200 block of Buffalo Creek Road in Wayne County for youth transitioning out of the West Virginia foster care system where they can live and work by using the Youth Transition Project (YTP).

The YTP is a public-private partnership focused on youth ages 16-23 transitioning from foster care or experiencing homelessness.

The centerpiece of the project is a tiny home village with comprehensive life skills, employment training, education and well-being support provided by the broader community.

The goal is that disconnected West Virginia youth are supported to reach their full potential as they transition into adulthood.

On Friday, the organization hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony to introduce a first-of-its-kind commercial greenhouse and tower garden farm to be operated by foster care youth.

“Stepping Stones has partnered with UniCare Health Plan of West Virginia to develop agriculture programs for our tiny home village that includes a 1,200-square-foot greenhouse and hydroponic tower garden,” said Susan Fry, executive director of Stepping Stones.

Fry said funding for the hydroponic tower garden farm and greenhouse was made possible by an $80,000 donation from UniCare Health Plan of West Virginia.

“This is the largest donation we have ever received,” she said.

The tower garden farm and greenhouse is designed to provide fresh vegetables year-round.

“Stepping Stone youth will grow food not only for themselves as residents of the village, but they will also start a social enterprise where they sell some of the produce and learn how to run a business,” Fry said.

Fry added that students will donate excess fresh vegetables to the area’s homeless and recovery community.

“They are not only going to learn how to grow healthy foods, but also how to cook healthy and eat healthy,” she said. “Then they will share what they learned with their family and others in the community for the benefit of others.”

Youth in the tiny house village will also have the opportunity of pursuing a certification in agriculture in partnership with the West Virginia Department of Education Office of Diversion and Transition, Fry added.

“They will get a two-year certification and can go on to community college or a university,” she said.

Stephen Ritz, founder of the Green Bronx Machine, developed the curriculum for indoor gardening that will be used at the new greenhouse and hydroponic tower garden.

“We are an organization that grows children, and our children grow vegetables, and our vegetables grow schools, and our schools grow communities, and our communities become resilient,” Ritz said. “We do it one student at a time, one classroom at a time, one greenhouse at a time and one community at a time.”

Ritz says the program was built on the belief that healthy students drive healthy schools, which in turn drives healthy communities.

“I have developed a fully integrated core curriculum that teaches students how to grow, eat and love vegetables, while also learning about math, science and English in a fresh and engaging way,” he said. “Students who have participated in this program have experienced health improvements that lower the risk of childhood obesity, diabetes and heart disease, while also increasing their performance in school.”

Ritz said he started the program in 2011 with a school in the South Bronx in New York.

“From the South Bronx to the middle of the mountains in the heart of West Virginia is exciting,” he said. “These young people are not only growing food, but growing hope and opportunity 365 days a year thanks to the amazing folks at UniCare Health Plan of West Virginia.”

Tadd Haynes, president of UniCare Health Plan of West Virginia, said the company was happy to support the project.

“We helped collaborate and bring some folks together, as well as provide funding for this wonderful community project,” Haynes said. “This will be a fresh start for these students, and we think it will give the opportunity to gain some skills they can take with them for the rest of their lives. It’s great to see a company like ours giving back to the community and really helping build up some young people who have had some rough times in their lives.”

Ritz also thanked Marshall University so that students who go through the program can be connected with academic opportunities.

“We are taking a holistic approach that can transform communities and the way we look at recovery,” he said. “Today, we are touching (the lives of) 50,000 students daily across 20 states and five nations. In the next 18 months, we will be touching (the lives of) 500,000 students. This is a movement that is growing something greater by restoring health and opportunities for these students, and even more importantly it’s giving passion, purpose and hope to young people that need it.”

Follow reporter Fred Pace at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter @FredPaceHD.

Follow reporter Fred Pace at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter @FredPaceHD.

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