The sun was shining brightly and temperatures soared into the 80s as teens gathered Wednesday, June 17, to help plant a community garden at the offices of Cloquet’s REACH Mentoring Program on Stanley Avenue.

The garden — in its second season — was the brainchild of REACH participant Hunter Brown. Brown, 17, saw potential in the backyard of the REACH offices and asked Executive Director Dakota Koski about the possibility of growing vegetables in the space.

“I felt like a parent with a puppy,” Koski said. “I told him I didn’t want to be the one watering it and taking care of it every day.”

Brown said he and his friend Cody Crisel planted the garden, growing lettuce, tomatoes, green beans and, with somewhat more varied success, onions, carrots and peppers.

“I just like being outside — it’s kind of fun to watch it grow, you know,” Brown said. “My grandma’s always done it, too. Fresh vegetables are nice to have and I also like to give them away to friends and family, too.”

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The gathering for the garden was significant in other ways, too. It was the first in-person gathering for REACH since the COVID-19 outbreak caused schools and parks to close, leaving kids with few options.

REACH tried to step into the void and continue online with almost daily Zoom video conferencing calls throughout the shutdown.

A range of area youth — from middle school age to seniors in high school — would hop on the calls and chat about how the pandemic was affecting them. In addition to the group chats, some kids were connecting with Koski, program coordinator Annie Parish or other REACH mentors individually.

REACH AmericCorps Promise Fellow Mackenzie Bassett, a recent Cloquet High School graduate, works to help get a small garden ready to plant Wednesday, June 17. (Jamey Malcomb / Pine Journal)
REACH AmericCorps Promise Fellow Mackenzie Bassett, a recent Cloquet High School graduate, works to help get a small garden ready to plant Wednesday, June 17. (Jamey Malcomb / Pine Journal)

“We noticed a handful have been having mental health challenges when everything was really in lockdown and they weren’t allowed to go anywhere or see anyone,” Koski said. “So we had a lot that were coming into our Zoom calls and wanting to see a face outside their home.”

Brown said he wasn’t able to do any of the Zoom calls because of his job at Kwik Trip, but Dustin Grover — another REACH participant — said he was able to regularly join the meetings.

“The zoom calls were helpful because even if I feel like it’s better to socially interact in person, I feel like it's more about being connected,” Grover, 17, said. “When you're quarantined it causes stress, anxiety and depression. That's human nature and anybody that would be quarantined for a long time would go a little crazy ... Whether it be in-person via technology, you're still talking to someone which is what counts the most.”

REACH participant Dustin Grover (left) and volunteer Maggie Schulstrom work to clean out a garden bed Wednesday, June 17, behind the mentoring program's office on Stanley Avenue in Cloquet. (Jamey Malcomb / Pine Journal)
REACH participant Dustin Grover (left) and volunteer Maggie Schulstrom work to clean out a garden bed Wednesday, June 17, behind the mentoring program's office on Stanley Avenue in Cloquet. (Jamey Malcomb / Pine Journal)

Grover said he enjoyed getting back to in-person meetings and said working in the garden was “therapeutic” after months inside.

Koski said the Zoom calls were a good way to stay connected, but there were issues with some not having internet access or connections that wouldn’t support video calls.

Now that in-person meetings returned, REACH is faced with a new challenge — transportation. With social distancing still recommended, participants need to find their own ride to meetings instead of Koski or Parish picking them up.

“We already in our program have issues with transportation,” Koski said. “Us as staff have taken it on to try to pick up as many as we can and bring them to and from events. But now with this virus, we're not gonna be able to pick kids up. They're going to have to find a way to get dropped off or take their chances with public transportation.”