South Side florist offers jobs and training for at-risk youth

At 17, Eric Sanders already had a fairly interesting job: he crisscrossed the South and West slopes on formerly abandoned land, where he collects, cleans and stores flowers.

Eric landed the job through a program run by Chicago Eco House, which turns vacant lots in Englewood, Woodlawn, Washington Park and West Garfield Park into flower farms.

Eco House is a non-profit organization that helps at-risk youth aged 16 to 24.

Last year he opened a store, Southside Blooms, which operated from Eco House headquarters, 6439 S. Peoria St. The store sold flowers grown on these farms across town, and he offered training. and jobs for some of the young people. the group serves.

But at 11 a.m. on Thursday, Southside Blooms will be opening its own physical store at 6250 S. Morgan St.

“The impetus behind (Southside Blooms) was really this nagging belief that we can find a solution to really stem a lot of the uncontrollable violence and poverty that the South and West sides are known by,” said Quilen Blackwell, founder of Chicago Eco. House.

In April, Southside Blooms invited residents to help collect flowers for the store’s bouquets.
Chicago Eco House / Southside Blooms

Last year, Chicago Eco House reached out to young people through neighborhood schools or clubs on the South and West sides, such as Crushers Club, to introduce them to Southside Blooms.

This year, the store partnered with Cook County Juvenile Probation to connect with more at-risk youth. Blackwell said the partnership will create “a pipeline for incarcerated youth … [to] get back on your feet.

“A lot of the kids we work with are kids coming off the streets,” Blackwell said. “Basically they are either gang affiliated or in this world or friends with gang members.”

Employment under the partnership is based on merit and performance. Once a juvenile has served their sentence, they can train with Southside Blooms and learn skills like speed, conflict resolution in the workplace, and how to be a good team member.

Blackwell said those who “really excel” at the 10-week training are hired at $ 15 an hour. Young employees can work as flower assistants, greeting card assistants, or farm assistants. There is no time limit for the length of stay of young employees.

Cade Kamaleson, farm manager for Southside Blooms, said the program’s most tangible impact on the community has been the physical transformation the farms bring to the lots – some owned by Eco House, others by the city and some rented to private parties.

“It goes from a wasteland (that) people walk past something really beautiful,” Kamaleson said. “When you work there the people in the community greet you and you get to know the neighbors around the farms and the people are just interested and excited about what is going on. “

Founded in 2014, Chicago Eco House began transforming vacant lots on the south and west sides into flower farms in 2017.

Founded in 2014, Chicago Eco House began transforming vacant lots on the south and west sides into flower farms in 2017.
Chicago Eco House / Southside Blooms

Eric said working with Southside Blooms taught him a lot about the needs of flowers and the steps necessary for them to grow properly.

“It’s good to have some free time,” Eric said. “Growing up in the city of Chicago, there’s a lot going on. It’s good to work on something natural, something that gives. You learn a lot.

He added that the more time he spends at Southside Blooms, the more he learns.

Eric said he told a friend of his about Southside Blooms and was able to help him find a job in the store. He also frequently brings flowers to his grandmother. He plans to stay and become the next farm manager.

Blackwell said he hopes to open more stores across the country to help at-risk youth in other cities. Already the group has a pilot program in Detroit, and they recently opened a farm in Gary.

“Chicago is obviously not the only city facing these problems,” Blackwell said. “It’s a national problem we’re talking about, and we feel like we have… at least a cost-effective solution that can help eliminate much of this problem.”

Cheyanne M. Daniels is a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a non-profit journalism program that aims to strengthen newspaper coverage in communities on the south and west sides.

Young employees of Southside Blooms can become floral assistants after training, collecting flowers from the store's farms on the south and west sides to make bouquets.

Flowers grown on empty lots in several South Side and West Side neighborhoods will be sold to Southside Blooms from its new location, 6250 S. Morgan St.
Chicago Eco House / Southside Blooms


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