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"As a kid, I went to a lot of shrinks and I felt boxed in," he says. "Those clinical settings never worked out. More and more I've realized the philosophy here [at Boys Grow] is about what would have worked for me when I was 13."
Gordon had the first inkling of what would become Boys Grow in Chico, California, in 2008. Gordon was working for a family services agency that brought in troubled youth for group counseling sessions, which included campfires and day outings. He refers to this as his "Lord of the Flies days."
"There is always stuff to be done on a farm," Gordon says. "Life slows down, and you have to take a deep breath. There's responsibility and discipline and dedication. That's where this idea for a functional, working type of youth farm started."
When his mother became ill, in 2009, he moved back to Kansas City. He returned to construction sites where a decade earlier, he was probably the only construction worker in the city who split his time on the weekend between modern dance and mixed martial arts.
"Both are such structured things," he says. "You're either right or you're wrong. You're either correct or incorrect."
Gordon lost a key supporter when his mother died two years ago. After that, the prospect of launching Boys Grow felt daunting to him. But his own volunteerism would ultimately provide the impetus for his organization. Gordon was named the Big Brother of the Year for the state of Missouri that year, and he met Micheal Lawrence, the CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Kansas City. He pitched Lawrence on the idea of a farming entrepreneurship program geared toward boys from nontraditional or single-parent households. He was going to distill what he'd learned into a two-year leadership academy.
"We're a mentoring organization, and we saw it as an opportunity to mentor John Gordon as he got the program started," Lawrence says.
Big Brothers Big Sisters became Boys Grow's fiscal sponsor, handling and tracking donations and lending legitimacy to the fledgling nonprofit. Gordon attended board meetings and met with senior staff as he developed his own board, adding Jenny Kincaid for her marketing expertise and Heidi Hebert to advise him on accounting. Gordon had hoped to work with 12 boys during the initial year. A round of fliers at community centers and schools netted 11 applicants, who became the first class for Boys Grow. This year, 38 applicants (steered to Gordon by Alta Vista Middle School and Lee A. Tolbert Community Academy) were interviewed in April for the 12 spots.
"In reality, we're trying to farm entrepreneurs as much as plants," Gordon says. "We're trying to unleash a whole new crop on the city."
A brown streak cuts between the bee boxes and a nearby chicken coop. A terrified rabbit races past chickens pecking at overripe melons as the farm morning melts into afternoon. A larger, faster-moving black blur gives chase — Agadez, Anderson's dog. The three boys nearest the pursuit cheer on the Rottweiler–golden retriever mix, which is charged with keeping away the wildlife that wanders over from the surrounding woods.
Agadez is named for a northern city in Niger, where the Peace Corps posted Army veteran Anderson five years ago. There, Anderson worked with children to plant fruit trees and millet in an effort to increase protein in the local diet.
"It was a group of kids not that different from these guys, Anderson says. "When they said I couldn't grow something, I just took the kids and we showed them we could do it."