Teens With a Purpose: Transforming a Norfolk Community

“Gardening, I’ll admit, I’m a black thumb,” said 19-year-old Asia Caraballo, chuckling. She was talking about her introduction to Purpose Park, one of the many initiatives of Teens With A Purpose, a longtime nonprofit based in Norfolk.

Caraballo’s thumb has gotten greener, though, since helping at the large-scale garden that grows on a half acre, just off Church Street and East Olney Road. She waters and weeds the tomatoes, zucchinis, sweet potatoes, herbs, and fruit trees that bloom on the site. It sits across from the Vivian C. Mason Arts and Technology Center, the organization’s headquarters.

“Gardening is a hands-on experience,” Caraballo added. “You don’t just get the plant.
You have to weed, to tend to it; the care you have to put into it to make plants grow.”

She is one of hundreds, and probably thousands, who have participated in activities with Teens With A Purpose, also known as TWP, since its inception.

The group has been around in some form since 1996, and it’s primarily a creative youth development organization, according to Deirdre Love, its founder and executive director. Yet TWP can be tough to characterize because it does so much more: from HIV prevention and awareness, to poetry slams, to after-school and community-based summer programs.

And now, it is producing a set of gardeners.

The Hampton Roads Community Foundation and donors have supported TWP over the years through a series of grants totaling more than $150,000. The money includes funding for the organization’s school-based poetry and literacy program as well as for Purpose Park – which is billed as a “Safe Creative Community Space.”

Purpose Park became a notion in 2016, Love said, when a teenager in the nearby Young Terrace community suggested making the plot of land something more than just gravel. The city-owned property was intended for development, Love said, but she kept plugging away to convince Norfolk officials of a different vision.

TWP began a partnership with the Norfolk Botanical Garden and Virginia Tech to learn about gardening and cultivation. The city then allowed the organization to become a lease partner for the park space. It’s been in motion since 2017.

Open Norfolk, a city of Norfolk community aid program, is another partner.

Walk through this spot, and you’ll see all sorts of rectangular plant boxes and metal barrels that hold something delicious or fragrant. Peach, apple, and cherry trees are part of the mix, too.

Sometimes, the plants will grow as expected. Other times, they’ll go bad, said Jaylin Samuel, 17, a student at Granby High School, “We’ll take it out of the ground and replace it,” he said.

The ripe produce is shared with neighbors in the nearby public housing community Calvert Square, which lacks ample grocery stores. Sometimes they’ll come in to pick a little for their own tables. “They express gratitude,” said Caraballo. “And it’s very unique, because you’re not used to seeing” such a large community garden in the middle of a city.

Exercise, yoga, and games like kickball take place in the park, too. Part of the space has a plywood bandstand where entertainers and poets occasionally perform.

The park also includes murals of African American women who made their mark in Virginia, including Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician whose contributions were spotlighted in the movie “Hidden Figures,” and Irene Morgan, who took a stand against second-class treatment on buses in 1944, more than a decade before Rosa Parks’ well-known act of defiance in Montgomery, Ala.

The land once covered in concrete now helps young people connect with nature.

“It’s a sense of ownership,” Love said, “since they built this.”

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