The boys sold tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, egg plant and more

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Earlier this summer, John Gordon Jr. had a problem.

He and more than a dozen members of his fledgling youth farming program, BoysGrow, had just harvested their first crop of hundreds of pounds of produce from a 2-acre Wyandotte County, Kan., plot, and the clock was ticking. They had no cooler in which to store the vegetables and no distribution network.

No worries, he thought. He'd just figure it out — the way he always had.

After all, it was a small miracle that Gordon could start his nonprofit program in the first place, where at-risk boys ages 12-15 get paid for growing and marketing fresh vegetables. He knew nothing about nonprofits or marketing. And he certainly didn't know anything about farming.


The Kansas City native made a few calls to local chefs, loaded boxes of food into a small white school bus and drove to restaurants, where the boys — smartly dressed in collared shirts — sold the vegetables straight to chefs.

"You could still feel the heat from the garden when they brought it in," said Stephanie Dumler, executive chef at the Westside Locale. "It was that fresh."

And it was just the first of many fresh deliveries BoysGrow made this summer.

The boys sold tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, egg plant and more to Westside Local, Bella Napoli, the Farmhouse and the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange. Gordon used the remainder of the produce to help the boys make and market salsa. After they perfected their recipe through trial and error, they contracted with Original Juan Specialty Foods in Kansas City to have it made in larger batches and bottled for sale at area stores. Profits go back into BoysGrow.

Gordon even arranged a day for the boys to work with the chef at Blanc Burgers + Bottles on the Plaza in Kansas City, Mo., to create a limited edition BoysGrow Burger, made with their produce and salsa.

"We actually got to come in and help make the burger with Josh Eans, the chef," said Julian Castro, a 15-year-old sophomore at Center High School. "It's nice to see your hard work come into effect. It's like, 'I made that!' "

For Gordon, it's all about those boys.

"They talk about being part of something," he said. "To me that's powerful. To be connected to something that's positive at that age is not easy. It's way easier to be connected with something that's not positive. So if they're going to be connected to something that they like that they get paid for and want to see grow, to me that's the best thing we can do."

Now 34, Gordon is about as manly a role model as a boy could want. Sure, he's well spoken with a bachelor's degree in English. But he's also ruggedly built with black hair, a deep tan and thick stubble. He hunts and fishes and used to play for the Mexican Arena Football League.

The story of how Gordon started BoysGrow winds through New Mexico and California. But it all started with a class in Kenpo karate, a hybrid form of martial arts. In the early 2000s, the head of Gordon's karate school invited him to a New Mexico wilderness retreat called Fathers, Sons & Brothers. The three-week workshop helped men explore the relationships with the males in their lives, while improving communication and self-esteem.

"My dad worked a lot, and I grew up in a very female-dominated world," Gordon said. "I had three sisters. It was all women in my world. Communication and talking about how you feel — to me — was scary."

The workshop was just what he needed. His communication skills increased along with his confidence. By his fourth year attending the workshop, he became a staff member who helped others. That's when Steven Young, the workshop's leader, offered Gordon a job with a social service agency in Chico, Calif., working with young people.

There he met Paco, a 12-year-old boy who changed his life.

"He was like Harry Potter living underneath the stairs," Gordon said. "Nobody wanted him."

Paco was stealing and enthralled by a local gang. That's when he went to live in the country. His new farm family gave him plenty of responsibilities. Gordon saw a quick change.

"He went from this sunken kid who was wearing the weight of the world on his shoulders — aggravated and hard to talk to — to a young man who had a purpose," he said.

Gordon brought that lesson back to Kansas City in 2008. He started BoysGrow two years later.

Gordon doesn't tell the boys they can do things. He shows them.

Not that it's been easy. He had never planted anything before.

"Kids are looking at me, and I'm looking at Google," he said, throwing his hands up.

What they didn't have in technology, they made up for with hard work. No elaborate watering systems? No problem. They carried water from a pond in 5-gallon buckets.

"I personally think a lot of our kids are pretty soft nowadays and that getting a callous on your hand means something's wrong," he said. "That's not the case. That means you're doing something right." In 2010, Gordon spread the word by placing notices on the bulletin boards of community centers.

"Our first informational meeting (was interesting). I say we're going to meet on this day, and this is what we're going to do. I was talking for like 15 minutes when somebody raises his hand in the back and says 'Who are you?' And then I realized that's a good question. I mean, this program didn't exist. I was just a guy with a flier."

He's come a long way.

His current class has now graduated. The 2012 class will come up with its own product. They're considering ketchup. In the nongrowing season the group continues to meet two to three times per month.

"There's a guy coming in who is doing a full marketing course with the kids," Gordon said. "They're also going to tour a farm."

And, of course, they'll keep working on their own farm. The boys grow more than 20 crops in all. Gordon, who draws a salary from the organization, also keeps four chickens at the farm and gives the eggs to the boys. He wants to add more chickens and create a small egg distribution business.

He even dreams of getting bees.

"We'll do honey," he said. "They'll pollinate the flowers. And supposedly you can get 30 percent more yield on produce if you have bees."

Does he have experience working with bees?

"I don't know how to work with bees," he said, flashing a smile.

Never stopped him before.

"I'm learning as I go," he said. "I never ran a farm, never sold produce, never ran a salsa distribution company. Life is complicated, and the business world is hard. But it's not overwhelming. That's what I want the boys to know."