Keith Nelson harvests the lettuce heads which he grew from seedlings.
Keith Nelson dragged a garden hose across the carpeted floor in the dimly lit sanctuary at United Methodist Church Tuesday afternoon. The 18-year-old leaned over a plastic folding table, trimming heads of lettuce as he daydreamed about becoming a chef someday.
Nelson has kept the same goal for most of his life, he explained, to own and operate his own restaurant.
For years, he planned on attending Sheridan College, where he would have obtained a degree in culinary arts. However, since the North Western Community College District (NWCCD) Board of Trustees unanimously voted to cut the culinary program last spring, Nelson has been searching for local opportunities to expand his understanding of the field.
Now, he’s found one.
Casey Starr, transitional living coordinator at Y.E.S. House, met Nelson through the foundation’s program about a year ago. Throughout the course of working with him, Starr said his plans may have morphed but his dream has never deviated.
Last year, Nelson submitted a resume to Pizza Carello, since he knew that the owners were self-made entrepreneurs who could undoubtedly teach him a thing or two about the business, and within weeks, he was offered a day-time position at the restaurant. Unfortunately, though, he was still in high school and wouldn’t have been able to swing a mid-day shift.
“I had to choose between quitting school and giving up an awesome job opportunity,” Nelson said. “So, I decided to wait.”
Missing out on his ideal work situation, Nelson reluctantly extended his search for an after-school job. Together, he and Starr considered some alternative options to enrich his skills.
That’s where Rose Rennell stepped in.
Rennell, director at First United Methodist Church, had taken the liberty of creating a hydroponic garden inside the church’s sanctuary last fall.
Rennell said that when she started the hydroponic project, she’d set the bar a bit too high for herself, attempting to grow peppers, tomatoes and other vegetables right away. She soon realized that year-round gardening is a slow-going project and decided to downsize to lettuce and herbs.
It wasn’t long after she started the project that she decided to seek out a bit of help. Starr, who was already collaborating with Rennell on the project, recommended the 18-year-old foodie to help manage the rapidly growing garden.
After Rennell interviewed Nelson in February, she said it was clear that he was the perfect fit. Nelson worked on the hydroponic project for a few months before finishing high school in May. As he continued his work at the church, Nelson was contacted by the owners of Pizza Carello, who asked him whether he’d be interested in working part-time in their restaurant.
He nailed the interview, earning the token black and green shirt.
That day, Nelson had just finished his shift at the pizza place when he turned up at the church for his second job overseeing the plants.
The hydroponic project, Nelson explained while checking the soil’s pH levels, is much more than gardening. Not only does Nelson take part in the entire planting process, but he helps Rennell on the business end with marketing and sales.
In fact, Nelson just lined up a new client to reap the bounty of his efforts. Now, Pizza Carello’s ranch dressing and other sauces will be seasoned with parsley and basil grown by their very own employee.
That’s the beauty of farm-to-table locally, Nelson smiled, as he continued the quest to make his dreams a reality.