Sidebar: Giving back, the All-America way

Peer leader Jesus Briones

Peer-leader teens with Improving Chandler Area Neighborhoods are growing watermelons, and character, during a summer project aimed at developing leadership skills and giving back to the community.

Over the past few months, ICAN teens have been cultivating their crops on a five-acre stretch of land owned by Kovach Inc. After recently harvesting the melons, they not only sold them at ICAN’s Phoenix location to raise money for a field trip, but donated hundreds to Chandler food shelters.

“They donated over 300 to the Chandler Christian Community Center last week, and they will be donating more in the future,” Christy McClendon, chief executive officer of ICAN, said.

“They also went to the center food bank and helped distribute the watermelons to their clients.”

ICAN is a Chandler support center for teenagers who lack resources to build social and leadership skills. Local youths unite to work on projects with lasting benefits to the community.

Steve Kovach, president of Kovach Inc., originally pitched the idea of Future Farmers to ICAN, and said the company was prepared to provide all the materials and land necessary for the project. ICAN peer leaders quickly began working the land, owned by Kovach Inc., to create a garden environment.

“We decided that it would be a huge benefit to ICAN groups, and it would build character and a strong work ethic,” McClendon said.

Teens, ages 13-18, who are involved with ICAN were eligible to volunteer with the Future Farmers project. Members had friendly competitions to see who could harvest the most and biggest watermelons, McClendon said.

Jesus Briones, a 14-year-old peer leader with ICAN, said he has been working with the organization for the past two years, after hanging with a bad crowd and getting into trouble with the law.

He put in hours with ICAN to fulfill volunteer hours but remained active with the group.

“It’s hands-on and it shows us how to work for the project’s goal,” he said. “We take control and learn how to manage everything.”

Jesus said he enjoyed giving back to the community, and seeing the impact of their project.

“We give part to them to centers, so families who get food boxes can also get watermelons,” he said.

After harvesting all the watermelons, ICAN members are preparing to plant pumpkins for the fall, creating more opportunities for them to build more social and leadership skills.

“I like to say that we planted watermelon seeds and we grew character,” McClendon said.

About ICAN

ICAN was founded in the early 1990s as a response to the growing gang issue in downtown Chandler.

“We provide research-based programs proven effective at preventing substance abuse, gang activity and juvenile delinquency,” McClendon said. “We focus our services in the redevelopment area.”

ICAN’s focus area includes families with children who are more likely to face social barriers, including gang violence and drug abuse, and live in extreme poverty.

Four of 10 kids in the focus area will most likely not receive their high school diploma or GED, according to ICAN reports.

“ICAN looks to work with those youth to develop the social skills to overcome the barriers that exist for them,” McClendon said.

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