A Delaware teenager with a green thumb and a golden touch has been named a 2020 honoree by the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes. Newark’s Megan Chen, 17, is one of 25 young leaders recognized for making a positive difference in her community and beyond.
Chen was awarded the prestigious honor after founding The Urban Garden Initiative (TUGI), a nonprofit empowering our youth to grow and learn more about fresh produce and the benefits of a healthy, sustainable environment. A longtime grower of container vegetables herself, Chen gardens year-round to provide greens and veggies for her family.
Although her family moved around a lot when Chen was young, she found a way to explore the principles of gardening using containers when her living space didn’t afford the room needed for a conventional garden.
“Even if the plants didn’t turn out perfectly, learning about how food is grown was super interesting to me,” she says. “Over the years, I started diving more into different issues, discovering more about issues at a local level, like food insecurity in my community.”
Being exposed to her parents’ strong work ethic after immigrating to the U.S. with essentially nothing helped ignited Chen’s drive to follow her heart.
“My parents always let me pursue whatever I was interested in,” she says. “Ever since I was really young, I’ve had this deep interest in and fascination with the environment.”
The stark reality that food deserts exist in and around Wilmington inspired the teen to become involved with urban gardens, volunteering at several before deciding to take her passion a step further. She launched TUGI in August 2019 after a summer spent working at a Wilmington urban farm.
“I was already kind of involved in the environmental space in other ways, so after talking to [urban garden] organizations about solutions being implemented or needed to be implemented around Wilmington—all of those things led up to starting TUGI locally at first,” she says.
Chen and her team of more than 200 volunteers provide container gardening workshops to students at approximately 50 elementary and middle schools throughout the state. These fall and spring workshops allow children to experience growing vegetables directly from seed, and enlightens them on how urban agriculture blossoms into greener, healthier cities.
“Through our workshops, we introduce a lot of people, especially students who are not being taught environmental education in their classrooms, to the idea of food being tied to the overall problem of climate change,” Chen explains. “Right now, we’re seeing the evident effects of how climate change is affecting people all around the world.”
How food is grown, processed and distributed impacts the industry’s carbon footprint and, therefore, is a critical component of combating the greater environmental effects of climate change, Chen proposes.
“Over the years, I started diving more into…food insecurity in my community.”
In addition to local grassroots campaigns, TUGI provides similar programming for Boys and Girls Clubs and partners with other nonprofits to offer summer camp sessions. Since the nonprofit’s inception, Chen and her organization have raised over $10,000 to fund the work and have crafted alliances with major environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy. She has also grown TUGI to include more than 40 chapters around the world.
“I think it’s incredible how many people you can find who are passionate about the same causes you are,” Chen says. “I want to work together to give youth the knowledge and resources they need to create change.”
The annual Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes, founded by author T.A. Barron, recognizes 15 winners and 10 honorees. These young ambassadors are as diverse as their service projects; they are male and female, urban and rural, often from dissimilar backgrounds, yet united by strength of character as they work to better their communities and the planet with courage, compassion and perseverance. Over the past two decades, the Barron Prize has honored nearly 500 Young Heroes from across the U.S. and Canada and raised more than $24 million for their causes.