By Art Holliday
ST. LOUIS (KSDK) - Former St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Sylvester Brown grew up on mean streets of north St. Louis, neighborhoods where drug dealing is often the definition of being an entrepreneur. He understands that growing up in an environment where crime and drugs are everyday life can cause a young person to believe that's all there is.
Mentors helped him when he was younger, and now he wants to pay it forward.
"I'm able to take young people who were raised in the same environment I was raised in when I was a kid and say 'you've got something special, here's the resource, here is the opportunity," said Brown.
PHOTOS: The Sweet Potato Project
Thanks to Brown, something's growing in a vacant lot in north St. Louis: sweet potato vines and the teenagers who planted them.
"It's not exactly what it sounds like," said college student Charnelle Hurn. "A lot of people say sweet potatoes, it's a joke. But it's really not. I just think Sylvester is a great person for doing this. It takes a real leader."
Brown wants Hurn and the other 24 students taking part in the Sweet Potato Project to understand they can determine their own destiny by starting their own businesses.
"The idea was just to turn on that light bulb and get them to understand that opportunity is right outside your door," said Brown.
In 2009, shortly before Sylvester Brown was let go by the Post-Dispatch, he re-read a column that he wrote about helping inner city teenagers succeed. It was a call to action for other people. Ultimately, Brown took action of his own and created the Sweet Potato Project.
"We will create jobs and businesses and opportunity in our communities and this is been missing for a long time in low income African-American and Latino communities. How do we generate money? The best way to generate money is to do for self. Teach kids at a young age how they can always generate money, create products, create ideas," said Brown.
While the sweet potatoes grow, the students attend daily classes, learning about leadership, teamwork and business creation. They also spend time watering and weeding the potato vines. The product is sweet potato cookies sold online, with the proceeds funding the Sweet Potato Project.
"My goal here is to have these kids become the next generation of pioneers who bring community, economic activity back to the community," said Brown.
Brown hopes that cookies aren't the only by-product of the sweet potato project. He believes he can change lives and attitudes.
"Our kids know how they are perceived. They know how people look at them. They know that they are stereotyped," he said.
Sixteen-year-old Keon Williams agrees.
"All you hear on the news is black people getting killed, black people going to jail, black people getting life, and I don't want to be one of those people," said Williams.
The Steward Foundation and World Wide Technology recently donated $12,000 to the Sweet Potato Project. The money will come in handy since 20 students were turned down for the program this year because of funding.
Besides donations, Brown is asking for volunteers and local business owners to mentor his students. For more information about the Sweet Potato Project, visit their website.