FLINT, Michigan — It’s 9 am on the main floor of Joy Tabernacle Church and there are already several tasks to be accomplished between the several young men seated. A crew of 12 make up the Flint Grounds Crew, young men 15 to 22 years old. They sit along the long table, chatting amongst themselves and preparing for a full day of cleaning and landscaping.
Nikita Johnson,30, who everyone actually calls “Peanut,” stands at the front podium and asks whether everyone has gotten their timesheets signed. But before all the serious logistics are addressed, there's a discussion of team adventure ideas for the summer.
Camping would be fun someone says. Duck hunting. The suggestion of turtle crawling sends the whole room in a fit of laughter.
This is a family and finding ways to bond like this are essential to the work.
"These young men filling up these chairs is really a motivation to really make you want to change, to really make you wanna show a difference,” said Johnathon Thomas, 24. “It’s not just about cutting grass. If it was just about cutting grass, believe me, half these guys wouldn't be here. ... It's more than just cutting grass; it's a ministry. "
Thomas is the operations supervisor of Flint Grounds Crew, a landscaping business that operates as part of the Urban Renaissance Center. It is a new sister company to Motor City Grounds Crew, run by Aaron Smith in Detroit.
It launched in March as a new outgrowth of the Rebounding Force work-readiness program at the Urban Renaissance Center. Flint Grounds Crew is an opportunity for lasting employment after the 12-week training program that teaches employability skills including team work, punctuality, and social poise.
“Many of the people we work with are three or four generations removed from people that ever worked,” said Pastor Robert McCathern of Joy Tabernacle Church. “We just assume that young people have work ethics, but there have been three generations that nobody has come home from work.”
You might have seen Flint Grounds Crew’s work passing by multiple Sunoco Gas stations they tend throughout Flint or NorthGate properties. The are a professional lawn service company that bids for major projects, but they also pick up jobs large and small by word of mouth and customers stopping into Joy Tabernacle Church. Many Civic Park lawns know their touch already.
Flint Grounds Crew, like its feeder training program Rebounding Force, specifically targets Flint residents who others sometimes have deemed as unemployable, either because of a lack of education or a criminal record.
Residents like Peanut.
Johnson (aka Peanut) grew up on Dayton and Alexander streets. At 6 years old, Johnson found himself in foster care for two years until his grandmother gained custody of him. But the years that followed remained tumultuous.
"I just always found myself in trouble," Johnson said. From the age of 13, he went in and out of the criminal justice system — until 2010, when everything changed. “I just got out of jail and I was coming up to the church with my brother and I met pastor in the parking lot.”
Johnson then was introduced to the Rebounding Force program and has spent several years as a participant and volunteer. He grew with the program has spent an ongoing four years as a landscape training supervisor through the Clean and Green program. He works alongside Thomas to help train Flint youth to become ready landscapers across the city. What they have is a fluid working relationship, forged from a strong friendship from when they met two years ago.
"He got taken away when he was 13 by the system. I got taken by the system when I was 17, by the system and my choice,” said Thomas. “But at the end of the day … your childhood is gone and you have to find out, once you get back here in the world … how to be a regular civilian."
Thomas grew up on McClellan street and seven years ago joined the Marine Corps, serving three tours in Afghanistan before returning home. His dream before leaving for service was to start his own landscaping company, but upon returning home found himself without the independence he needed to get started.
Living with his mother and struggling to find ways to cope with his PTSD, Thomas turned to the church and rediscovered his landscaping passion.
"To me, personally, cutting grass is really not cutting grass,” said Thomas. “Cutting grass is a therapy to me. It's really a stress reliever. It's really … something that I like to do."
Johnson and Thomas regularly take their workers and trainees to work the lots from Saginaw street to Atherton Road. Their work has been so efficient, said Thomas, that they often get mistaken for the City.
This year, they’ve cleaned 98 properties.
But they know their success isn’t something that can just be tabulated in yards mowed: It is measured in the lives they affect.
Those whose properties are cleaned, those who have lived too long next to blight, and those who prove they can and will work, if given the chance.
“One man can't do a thousand-man job,” said Thomas. “We lift as we climb. Everyone that we lift at this table we lift together.”