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This Chicago couple turns vacant lots into flower farms, with help of local youth

Quilen Blackwell wants to fill the inner city with flowers. His non-profit, Southside Blooms, is currently farming 10 acres that were once vacant lots in Chicago, and are now solar-powered, ultra-organic flower farms. He hires at-risk inner-city youth to work at the non-profit's farm-to-vase florist, helping create jobs and beautifying communities. In addition to four flower farms in Chicagoland, they have a pilot program in Detroit and a partnership in Gary, Indiana — and Blackwell hopes to replicate the initiative's success in cities across the country.

"We really want to be able to grow as much as possible and as fast as possible, so that inner cities of America can change," he says. "This is about eliminating the ghetto as we know it."

The flower farms each have "pocket parks," creating usable green space for children's birthday parties, neighborhood barbecues, and concerts. The social enterprise business model the non-profit applies to the flower shop gives kids a safe place to go after school, a way to earn money, and teaches marketable skills. Not to mention, it creates a beautiful environment wherever it's planted.

The students he met, he says, were "super talented and very smart." They just "lacked the opportunities I had growing up."

In 2014, he and his now-wife Hannah Bonham Blackwell founded the non-profit Chicago Eco House. The couple started with a $150 donation from a friend, bought a greystone home in Englewood for $17,000, rehabbed it, and in 2016 started an after-school program for children K-8. They started farming in their backyard, and in 2017, they bought two vacant lots on the block, launching their first foray into commercial, solar-powered flower farming.

"We wanted to something that not only helps the youth, but that would transform the environment that they're living in because it can't be separated," Blackwell says. At first, the non-profit sold flowers wholesale to local l florists. Then in 2019, the couple launched their in-house social enterprise flower shop, Southside Blooms.

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