Until its bankruptcy in 2011, Riverview Country Club and golf course, founded in 1898, was a historical symbol for Appleton, Wisconsin as the state’s oldest private country club. Despite closing, community members can still be found on its property to this day. But they have exchanged their golf clubs for an altogether different kind of gear: gardening tools. In 2011 Riverview Country Club, 72 acres of golf course, became Riverview Gardens, 72 acres of urban farming used for job training people in need.
Upon its closing, developers saw the opportunity for a high density housing project, but John Schmidt, president of U.S. Venture, had a different vision. Schmidt wanted Riverview Gardens to evolve into a financially self-sustaining job training program for people in need, using urban farming in a park setting.
The vision emerged for a community resource that could provide job training for the unemployed, homeless or those released from incarceration while also serving as a place anyone in the community can volunteer. Schmidt says this endeavor “changed the community’s perception of people in need, having them work side by side and recognizing that everybody wants the same thing, but that some people need help from others to get it.”
Schmidt was the spark that led Community Outreach Temporary Services (COTS) to buying the developers out. Schmidt says this kind of program, “frees up money in the community, or social dollars, so other issues can be addressed in a way that doesn’t require support long term.”
Riverview Gardens’ job training program frees up social dollars by enrolling men and women in a no-fail, 90-hour program. In 2014 alone, 240 people completed the program. Schmidt says the job training program creates a new story for people by changing their lives and the perception of their lives. “The people we serve come from all walks of life,” says Schmidt, “Our challenge is that there is a seemingly endless supply of people in need.” Riverview Gardens has helped transition men and women back into society after facing domestic violence, incarceration, unemployment or homelessness.
Anyone can volunteer at Riverview Gardens and the job training program is not the only way to help. Since its inception, participants have devoted more than 16,000 hours of volunteer service in a variety of outlets. Other programs offered include Youth Corps, or leadership training for high school students, Workshare, Outreach Gardens and Earn-a-bike. Earn-a-bike offers refurbished bikes to people who work 15 hours at Riverview Gardens. Workshare allows individuals and families in need to exchange volunteer service for a box of fresh vegetables during the summer growing season. Outreach Gardens works with four area shelters and community programs.
Schmidt observed that many people have preconceived notions of homeless men and women. “When you actually get in and work side by side with each other, you realize there’s not much difference,” says Schmidt. “Not only is it interesting and engaging work but it really does change people’s perception of people in need when they’re working side by side with them, work is a great equalizing platform.”