Greg Gaines of Mr. Gaines Gardening Program PLUS is the first winner of the Ruth Mott Foundation Leadership Award. Mike Naddeo
FLINT, Michigan—Greg Gaines didn’t want the job. He already had a job.
No. Nope. Not interested.
He turned them down three times.
“Something was bothering me,” Gaines says. He couldn’t sleep. Finally, he called.
Five minutes later, Mr. Gaines was hired into the program that is now his namesake: the Mr. Gaines Gardening Program PLUS.
“If God’s got something for you to do, you do it,” says Gaines, in his typical way. He is unassuming and endearing with a kind smile and the highest expectations.
That was 27 years ago and Gaines, 68, is still at it—because, it ends up, if God’s got something for you to do, He also finds a way for you to keep doing it.
See, Mr. Gaines thought he might retire this year. He knew which kids he would hire, but there was no promise that there would be a program again this summer.
He’s been at it a long time, after all. And, he technically already retired back in 2004 (at least from General Motors). Maybe it was time to really retire.
Well, some signs are just undeniable. Mr. Gaines knew something was up as soon as he walked in the room.
“Mr. Gaines, I’m happy to inform you that the Board of Trustees for the Ruth Mott Foundation has named you the winner of the inaugural Ruth Mott Foundation Leadership Award,” said Handy Lindsey, the foundation’s president, on a sunny May afternoon.
Mr. Gaines smiled and gave a little clap.
“I’m not one to want to pat myself on the back, but you know the way I look at it, Mr. Handy, is that it’s not Greg Gaines, it’s the God that dwells within me that brings out the best in me,” Gaines said.
And, it is Mr. Gaines who brings out the best in so many others.
For the past 27 years, Mr. Gaines’ nurturing, firm hand has been at the helm of the garden program, which, in that time, has employed about 3,000 Flint-area young people.
Yes, he teaches them how to grow food.
But, you see, that’s only the beginning. Mr. Gaines instills so much more into his kids.
He builds in them a strong work ethic and self-confidence. He teaches them how to shake hands and how to look people in the eye. He teaches how important all the little things they do—and the little things they don’t do—are.
“I thank God that this program has an ability to be in these kids’ lives,” Mr. Gaines said.
The recognition comes with a $25,000 award for the winner to give to a nonprofit of his choice, “to advance the winner’s work in the community.” It is believed to be the single largest competitive award prize given in Genesee County.
Mr. Gaines Gardening Program PLUS, operated through Catholic Charities of Shiawassee and Genesee Counties, will receive the donation.
And, Mr. Gaines will continue to advance his work in the community.
Back when it all started, “I didn’t know a green from a weed,” says Mr. Gaines with one of his quiet laughs.
And, well, now—“It grew beyond my expectations.”
In many ways it is a farm-to-table program—students plant, grow, and harvest the vegetables; they sell their goods at the Flint Farmers’ Market; and they learn some cooking skills, too, so that they can each make a family dinner by the end of the 12-week program—but it is the PLUS in its name that probably really captures what Mr. Gaines teaches.
PLUS means “people learning useful stuff.”
That’s what Mr. Gaines does. His kids walk away for their experience with job skills, personal finance lessons, nutrition information and a paycheck.
“It is so fitting that Greg Gaines is the first honoree of this award,” said Harriet Kenworthy, vice chair of the Ruth Mott Foundation Board of Trustees and chair of the Leadership Award’s Selection Committee. “Greg has been a positive role model for a tremendous number of young people and he is a phenomenal leader who is building other future leaders in Flint.”
Mr. Gaines is a bit of a living legend. He’s won lots of awards, including the state’s “Farmer of the Year Award,” and over at Catholic Charities they call him “farmer-in-chief.”
Truth is, though, that none of those things are the reward he receives.
The honors he relishes are seeing those kids who were in the gardening program and have now moved on.
“We’ve been at this 20-some years now, and we’ve got kids that came up through the program and they are scattered all around the nation now. And they are doing very well for themselves.
“These young people, it’s like I get them, and I see them grow up,” Gaines says. “Every summer, they always come back and see us and see how we are doing.”
The Ruth Mott Leadership Award program recognizes an individual working to make a difference in the lives of Flint residents and advancing one or more of the foundation’s priorities: youth, safety, economic opportunity, neighborhoods, and Flint water.
Mr. Gaines is its first recipient. So far.