Shefa Nola Benoit understands the importance of caring, supportive adults committed to providing a safe space so young people can thrive. She’s been a youth development professional for nearly three decades and has reimagined our Wardensville Garden Market Education Department into the Youth Advancement Department to focus more on youth development and leadership. We sat down with Shefa to discuss the importance of her department, her favorite aspects of the job, and why we all need to be part of the conversation and work.
How long has the Youth Advancement Department (YAD) been at Wardensville Garden Market/Farms Work Wonders?
The Education Department was the first department dedicated to supporting the student workers on our farm in 2017. Our growth and resources soared in that first couple of years, and the Education department expanded into the Youth Advancement Department in September 2019. The department has more than doubled since then to four full-time, two part-time, two interns, and a host of Junior Crew workers.
What is youth advancement and how does it benefit the students who work at Wardensville Garden Market?
Youth Advancement is very much what it sounds like; we are a team of caring, dedicated professionals who want to advance our young people forward through the most challenging years of their lives and beyond. While the concept of youth advancement at a workplace is new and revolutionary, it only makes sense when you understand the unique challenges and developmental stages of youth ages 14- to 24-years old. Having multiple opportunities to achieve goals, feel connected, seek guidance, brainstorm ideas, and safely experiment with options is just what teens need to navigate the rocky terrain that is adolescence. Youth Advancement at Farms Work Wonders and the Wardensville Garden Market is a strength-based team approach to this type of holistic support. It is both communal and individualized in its approach, seeking to meet each individual where they are and advancing them to where they want to be. When a young person is hired here, they inherit many benefits from the “Junior Crew Journey.” This journey takes them through a sequential and incremental growth process that fosters desirable personal and professional habits, develops a wide range of employment and entrepreneurial skills, supports their social-emotional well-being, advances their academic and career goals, and reinforces strong, healthy relationships.
What is your previous experience and why do you do this work?
I have spent nearly 30 years working in progressively responsible positions within nonprofit organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs or private, higher learning institutions like Howard University. These have afforded me the opportunity to work with youth ages 6- to 26-years old. I’ve also worked in urban, suburban, and rural communities, all presenting their unique challenges but also, each demonstrating how the core needs of all youth, regardless of where they come from, must be addressed. My particular passion in youth work is using service projects as multi-sensory and interdisciplinary opportunities to build on social and emotional skills, encourage civic responsibility, and make academics more relevant so they can become better students who have increased clarity on the direction they want to take in life.
What is your title?
I’ve been privileged to serve as the Youth Advancement Director since the department’s inception in 2019. Prior, I had served Farms Work Wonders/Wardensville Garden Market as a mission-focused contractor for 1.5 years.
How do you continue to develop your knowledge to help the youth?
Besides staying connected to leading youth development organizations and resources, which includes networking, mentoring, and shadowing those who are blazing new paths, I find committing to a youth-led approach of mentorship keeps you up-to-date. With technology and social norms changing rapidly, it is very easy to be “outdated.” Though longitudinal studies and well-researched statistics have merit, nothing beats one-on-one conversations with the youth you hope to serve. What are they telling you? What are they not saying? Can they teach you something new? By allowing them a seat of expertise at the round table of their own lives, with guidance, you can rarely become irrelevant in this work.
What are some of the challenges facing youth today and how does the Youth Advancement department help? Do you think these challenges differ by region?
There are the obvious challenges that plague teens all over, such as peer pressure, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, domestic issues, depression, and threats of suicide. No one anywhere is immune to these larger issues. We see instances of all of these here in our Potomac Highland region. COVID-19 has also had universal effects on everyone, which has exacerbated these problems in addition to adding the threat of a potentially deadly virus infection. Nevertheless, all youth require a basic foundation to thrive. According to the Search Institute’s longitudinal research, there are 40 Developmental Assets, 20 Internal and 20 External, that ALL youth need regardless of socioeconomic status. The Youth Advancement Department relies heavily on this list of assets as we develop our living classroom and enrichment programs. All staff, not just Youth Advancement employees, are committed to providing a safe and caring environment where our young people can benefit from more than 30 of these assets.
Are there any resources that you have found helpful to your role?
When you consider the vastness of the individual person coupled with the bursting energy of adolescence, then basically everything can become a resource when you think outside the box and embrace experiential and incidental learning opportunities. This becomes an even more valuable skill set when you live in areas where traditional resources are limited. By taking an “asset-based” approach to community resources while working with an organization where all ideas matter, you only need to look to the people, the local commerce, the heritage, and the history as though they all have something to contribute because they do. Then find a way to harness that wisdom and turn it into innovative opportunities. One opportunity we are looking forward to launching is a regional approach to the legendary Foxfire series, a collection of oral history narratives conducted by Appalachian youth capturing local folkways while encouraging intergenerational engagement. When you look to your community as a treasure trove of opportunity, no matter how big or small a world it may be, you will find the gems that reside there.
How important is the Youth Advancement department to the continued development of Wardensville Garden Market/Farms Work Wonders as a whole?
As a social enterprise that focuses on making money to do good, all of our departments are necessary to fulfill our mission. Our Youth Advancement department, however, is privileged to advocate on behalf of, and focus solely on the needs and growth of our student workers so we can regularly and creatively provide opportunities for Appalachian youth so they can thrive. Without each department pulling their weight, our department has no legs to stand on. Thus, we ALL are a part of the Youth Advancement department, each doing their share to ensure we can focus on the needs and assets of our youth.
What is your favorite part of being in this department?
After spending nearly three decades supporting youth in urban, suburban, and rural communities for leading nonprofits, working at Farms Work Wonders/Wardensville Garden Market is by far my favorite employer because we operate like an entrepreneurial venture, complete with all the creative inspiration that comes with that. By avoiding the traditional model of fundraising, where so much time, effort, and resources of a nonprofit are spent, our model allows everyone to be active stewards of our mission and creates a unification that is boundaryless. We keep a level of flexibility that is essential in meeting the various and changing needs of our community. Our operating model, which includes the support of inspired donors, frees us up to do the good work we set out to do, and, for us, that’s all about supporting our youth.
Is there anything you’ve learned in this work that you wish more adults understood?
The teenage years can be very tumultuous. Between developmental growth, hormone spikes, environmental pressures, and socio-economic differences, they deal with more than they are equipped to handle. That’s where the adults in their life come in. First, by understanding their developmental stage and the behaviors most common. Why is this helpful? So you can address behaviors and not the individual. Teens seeking autonomy and independence are more prone to telling untruths, not because there’s anything inherently “bad” about them. When you know this, you can actively work in alternative ways they can experience that independence, safely, responsibly, and help them avoid “acting out” in unacceptable ways. It is also very important to understand, while teens may fight you all along the way, they do appreciate you not throwing in the towel. While it may feel you will never see the rewards of your hard work and commitment, the truth is it often comes years later when they shift into yet another developmental stage that allows them to reflect and assess their experiences and their emotions better. I’ve learned patience and faith by working with youth because, more time than not, the rewards far outweigh the struggle if you stick in there long enough.
Shefa Nola Benoit
Youth Advancement Director
Hello, I’m Shefa (pronounced Shay-Fuh). With over 20+ years of empowering and organizing youth, working at Farms Work Wonders has allowed full integration of my personal values of community, integrity, stewardship, and the intrinsic value of every living thing through the services we provide. When you are next at the Farm, be sure to stop by and say hello!
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