Knowledge Quest is making a difference in the home and health life of Soulsville USA with its focus on after-school education, family counseling and an organic farm that is ready to turn this South Memphis property into a destination.
When Marlon Foster left home for college he didn’t go far.
His family’s home was near the intersection of Mississippi Boulevard and Walker Avenue in the heart of Soulsville USA. Foster attended nearby LeMoyne-Owen College, where he hoped to learn the ins and outs of starting his own business.
He left LeMoyne-Owen with an education, but also an idea, one that would keep him in the neighborhood serving the community through Knowledge Quest, an organization he founded in 1998. It was his first job out of school, and also somewhat born out of tragedy.
Growing up in the neighborhood, Foster’s best friend was killed just as they graduated high school. Between that experience, and a desire to be an entrepreneur, Foster looked around and realized all the opportunities existed right in his own neighborhood.
“What humbles me most is I had a thought and to take a thought, put it on paper and now to think about the thousands of children affected off a thought,” Foster said, reflecting back on what Knowledge Quest’s beginnings. “If you go back to 2001 Knowledge Quest existed out of the back of my grandmother’s house.”
Knowledge Quest was just an idea for a college student back in 1994. But he moved quickly, getting it chartered in 1995 and gaining tax-exempt status in January 1996. All of that led to the official founding on Jan. 1, 1998.
Over the past 18 years, Knowledge Quest has grown to now include thousands of students served through after-school programs, countless healthy vegetables consumed in what is otherwise known as a food desert, and parents assisted through counseling and other services.
Knowledge Quest has four major programs centered on the idea of “H2O,” or Home Health Opportunity for Youth. Everything the organization does is understood through that concept.
There are three sites along Walker Avenue stretching along a roughly two-mile corridor from Bellevue Boulevard to Third Street, making up the Knowledge Quest Kids Zone. Working at these three locations – Gaston Park Community Center, Knowledge Quest’s main campus at 590 Jennette Place and at the Renaissance Center at 990 College Park Drive along Walker – the organization reaches the community through a range of programs.
It all started with after-school education at the former Fowler Homes nearby at Crump Boulevard and South Fourth Street, but a garden component was quickly added that has grown extensively into a 2/3-acre urban farm just across from the main campus on Jennette Place. And most recently came the Universal Parenting Place, a location to help the whole family by providing parents with guidance and emotional support in a non-judgmental environment.
The after-school programs are the foundation of it all. The Extended Learning Academies provide hands-on learning experiences for students Pre-K through 12th grade. Students receive homework support, social and emotional literacy, recreation, a healthy snack and pursue individual interests through student passion clubs.
The first program was the School-Age Academy that serves students Pre-K through fifth grade. Today, that academy is held at all three sites where more than 250 students participate daily.
The Teenage Academy is a membership organization for students in sixth through eighth grades held at the College Park and Gaston Park locations.
Extended learning programs fall under STEM subjects, visual arts, performing arts, creative writing and expression, sports and urban agriculture. Knowledge Quest has a wide reach in the community, but it all points back to those programs.
All community connections are intentional; arts programs, for example, have partnerships with organizations such as the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Ballet Memphis and the Metal Museum.
All students are welcome in the programs as are all parents. The after-school programs are available through open enrollment. All students and parents are treated with respect, no matter the circumstance.
“At Universal Parenting Place our parents are held in the highest regard,” Foster said. “If we’re not careful we try to save children from their parents. That’s not right. We always honor the parent even if that parent is an immature parent for this stage of life.”
The facility has licensed family counselors and social workers. It’s the first public open-door program for Knowledge Quest.
It’s about prevention instead of intervention with a resource available for parents such as individual counseling and group sessions. There also are activities for the whole family, including Music for Aardvarks, yoga and aerobics.
Part of that College Park address is the Jay Uiberall Culinary Academy where high school students can explore the culinary arts and learn about the food cycle, from seed to table.
Much like the Universal Parenting Place work, Knowledge Quest’s focus on healthy lifestyles with the Greenleaf Learning Farm has potential to reach a large segment of the community. Greenleaf is one of the only USDA-certified organic farms in the area, and the only one that sells produce at the South Memphis Farmers Market.
The move to 590 Jennette Place came in 2006 and a small community garden was planted behind the church building. Over the past 10 years, Knowledge Quest has continued acquiring adjacent properties, creating a large footprint that continues to expand, including with the gardens now located across the street.
Those gardens today sit on lots that not too long ago contained a pit bull ring and drug house, respectively.
“What has been nothing but blight and overgrown lots we just changed the conversation,” Foster said. “These are green assets. … We lifted up that part of our DNA and created a program called Green Leaf. We wanted to be a learning farm.”
The primary customer is the surrounding neighborhood, people who walk or drive from a handful of blocks away. The farm started selling on location last year on Wednesday afternoons and will pick up again this season once crops are ready for harvest in the coming weeks. Produce is also sold at the Memphis Farmers Market and South Memphis Farmers Market.
“It’s here to give them a source of fresh produce because aside from farmers’ markets there really isn’t a source for fresh produce in the neighborhood,” said Farm Manager Theo Davies. “Fifty years ago you could get something at a corner store. It’s also a symbol of all these blighted properties. This is here to show them you can have nice things in the neighborhood with this resource for them.”
On a late March morning, staff and volunteers were busy preparing the beds for planting. A couple of beds are already planted with kale and lettuce where hints of green begin to pop out of the black dirt. At one point pretty much all of the beds on the property will be planted with something.
Groups of volunteers are welcome to work in the gardens.
Changes are coming to the property. A house is being transformed into a pack house for the garden where vegetables will be stored and cleaned, as well as house various classes.
There is a long-term vision to see something like the Memphis Botanic Garden’s Big Backyard, a center of agritourism located near Downtown and within blocks of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
“We think with Greenleaf we have this triple bottom line with student education, food access and security, and community economic development,” Foster said. “Through food sales, the dormitory and then through agritourism those revenue sources will make it self-sustaining. We want to take advantage of 60,000 visitors to Stax.”
There are three abandoned buildings, two of which eventually will become a conference and learning center. A more than $300,000 grant has been received to help convert the third building, a former apartment building that housed 10 one-bedroom units on the west side of the garden into the aforementioned dormitory.
For now, that building has been turned into public art on 64 wooden panels with the eastern side showing a rising sun and the western side a setting sun. The goal is to convert the building into college housing, ideally for students who want to learn about sustainable agriculture work.
Phase one of the expansion is pretty much complete, Foster said. That includes the recent completion of 24 new beds as well as several raised cinder block beds.
He envisions open-air markets on the expanded property. Additional hoop houses for chickens and compost will be built and an orchard will be added. This is all from a vision that’s just three years old and quickly coming into focus.
About $1 million is needed for ultimate project completion. Corporate partners have helped; Lehman-Roberts co. has chipped in with groundwork. The Memphis Grizzlies provided a new pavilion. Valero is a long-standing supporter, and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee has helped with a new playground.
That new pavilion, by the way, serves as an outdoor classroom as well as a host for farm-to-table dinners that could seat from 25 to 100. It also could be home for the weekly produce sales on property.
The work occurring at Knowledge Quest helps the city and county with blight removal, but this work is much more than improving the look of a city block.
“For us this is not blight,” Foster said. “This is a green asset. We’ve been in-ground organic since 2012. We began to understand what we have and just cut the grass. Now people are beginning to say, ‘Wait a minute. They may be onto something.’”
Things aren’t necessarily looking to the future; it seems Knowledge Quest’s present is the future. In less than two years, the organization has grown from 15 employees to 40, one location to three and seen the farm grow enormously.
“We got typecast as a youth development organization because we did it well but we think home, health and opportunities for youth is it,” Foster said. “Memphis has the capacity for at least three more Knowledge Quest Kids Zones. We think we have some work to solidify our brand in Soulsville and South Memphis and this programming and how to manage what has made us successful so far.”
High Ground's coverage of community sustainability efforts is made possible by Memphis Light, Gas and Water.