Colbe Cortez

Colbe Cortez - Seven Teens in 2017

Before he was even technically a teenager, Colbe Cortez, 14, was donating his time and talent for a good cause.

Last summer, Colbe’s Crops celebrated three years of producing and selling food for friends, families and the community to benefit Our House, a shelter for the working homeless in Little Rock.

The Bryant ninth-grader first had the idea for Colbe’s Crops in February 2014. “I told my parents I wanted to donate my Christmas gift money to a local charity and they suggested I invest my time and money in a project with the goal of doubling my initial investment before giving it to charity,” he recalled.

“I decided to plant a garden and grow and sell vegetables to benefit Our House shelter,” Colbe said. “I used my money to purchase seeds and other necessary items and then rented a plot in our community garden at church – Bryant First United Methodist Church – and planted my garden.”

Throughout that first summer, Colbe’s garden produced squash, zucchini, okra, tomatoes, cucumbers and various peppers. Through sales from church members as well as people outside of church, Colbe said he exceeded his goal of doubling his investment and raised more than $580 to present to Our House.

The next year, thanks to the donation of garden space by family friends, Dana and Tony Fry, Colbe was able to more than double the size of his garden. “This allowed me to continue to sell produce to my church family, family and friends and to also branch out to an occasional roadside produce stand and Facebook sales,” he said. That year he harvested and sold a total of 571 pounds of produce and more than tripled his 2014 donations with a total of $1,788.88 in proceeds for Our House.

Last summer, Colbe added additional summer vegetables and planted both a summer and winter garden. “With the help of my parents I also sold baked goods (zucchini bread), canned salsa and canned peppers made with produce from the garden. For 2016, I harvested and sold 780 pounds of produce and ended the year raising a total of $2,107.”

Colbe said before he started his garden venture, he didn’t have a particular interest in how food is grown and produced. “It’s interesting to me now,” he said. “It is amazing to me that you can start with a few seeds and some dirt and a few weeks later have plants with food on them.”

Melissa Anderson, a Bryant English teacher, nominated Colbe for this honor. “Recognizing a problem that does not directly affect him or her is rare for a teenager, but determining to address the problem and believing that he or she can make a difference is extraordinary,” she said. “It is even more impressive that he works so hard for something that has no direct benefit for him. Most teenagers do not believe that they can or that they have the responsibility to work to make their communities and the world better. Colbe is setting the example that not only is it possible, but that it is important to do so.”

Our House was an easy choice for Colbe. His church youth group had served meals, which prompted his desire to benefit the organization. “It’s such a good cause.”

The mission of Our House is to empower homeless and near-homeless families and individuals to succeed in the workforce, in school and in life through hard work, wise decision-making and active participation in the community. Providing nutritious meals to its residents is an important part of Our House’s mission to help residents rebuild their lives.

The biggest gardening challenge for Colbe has been dealing with weeds, he said. “Especially pig weed.” The most rewarding aspect of his initiative is knowing that the fruits of his labor help people in need, he noted.

In school, Colbe’s favorite subjects are ALICE, a computer coding class; iMad, a mobile app design course; and English. When he’s not gardening or studying, he enjoys playing video games.

Colbe plans to continue gardening throughout his high school tenure – that’s three more years. After he goes off to college, he said he hopes the garden program can continue, but he might have to hand over the reins to someone else.