Milwaukee Teen Leadership Program Makes Neighborhood Greenhouses Its Home

May 4, 2018

Two years ago, 87-year-old Webers Greenhouses on Green Bay Avenue in Milwaukee closed. However this past weekend, the greenhouses reopened to become the internship program Teens Grow Greens' experiential learning headquarters.

Nursery manager Claire Muza inside her favorite of Webers seven greenhouses.
Credit Susan Bence

Nursery manager Claire Muza will oversee all living things in four greenhouses this season.

Before she joined Teens Grow Greens, Muza ran her own vintage clothing business, but it doesn’t take long to realize that plants and soil run deep in the woman. Her first job as a teenager was in a greenhouse.

“I got that job because my mom worked at that greenhouse. She worked at a greenhouse my whole life,” Muza adds. “We had vegetables gardens as long as I can remember.”

Now her mom has been helping her at Teens Grow Greens new home. “My mom volunteers at least once a week. She helped me clean out the garage and plant a lot of the tomatoes. She’s addicted just like I am,” Muza says with a laugh.

Webers has been a fixture on Green Bay Ave since the 1930s.
Credit Susan Bence

Of course there is more to the story.

Five years ago, it was here at Webers Greenhouses that Charlie Uihlein tested his theory that teens could grow their organizational and leadership skills while learning what it means to grow plants from seed to splendor.

Year one, Uihlein nurtured 10 teens here. This season there are 18.

“One of the first things that attracted me to Webers was that it had a great customer base, a diverse customer base for Milwaukee. And it always occurred to me that they were growing more than plants here…How many places can you say have that sort of history?” he says.

The teens will not spend all of their time here, however. They also tend to two other gardens.

“The ways we’ve found to have the teens experience leadership is (by) mentoring third, fourth and fifth graders in the garden in everything they’ve learned to in the past months of the internship,” explains Uihlein.

That initiative is called Kids Grow Greens. "The teens are actually leading the program during the summer," he says.

The teens split their time between gardening, mentoring, and staffing three farmers markets three days a week.

Teens Grow Greens grad Travon Foster plans to serve up product Joe Veggie Go at Webers this season.
Credit Jennifer Morton

Each August, participants dive into Teens Grow Greens' individualized entrepreneurship program. Graduates of Teens Grow Greens have developed everything from a terrarium business featuring succulent plants, to lip balm and dog treats.

“Travon (Foster) is a graduate... He’s going to set up his café for his product Joe Veggie Go - coffee and all natural juices - and he will have that pop-up café at Webers on specific dates," Uihlein shares.

His eyes gleam with the potential of this nearly one acre parcel and its seven greenhouses. “We want to hear from the community, what else would you like to see because we want to continue the tradition of having it be a community business."

Buying the nursery was a big move for Teens Grow Greens. It will cost $50,000 a year to keep the greenhouses humming, according to Uihlein, but the plan is to offset the expense with income the nursery generates. Any profit will be funneled back into the Teens Grow Greens program.

Nursery manager Claire Muza says she is ready to do her part working with the teens. “I think that if we can make that bridge for kids at a younger ages, it will of course lead to healthier living."

But at that moment, her focus was on filling the greenhouse with enticing plants before they officially open for business this Saturday.

Nursery manager Claire Muza's work gloves collection at the ready.
Credit Susan Bence

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