Growing Hope

Features - Community Heroes

Rid-All Exterminating founder Damien Forshe is one of the minds behind an urban farm that is rebuilding a community, restoring pride and changing the conversation about how local businesses can transform blighted neighborhoods into economically sustainable, healthy places.

January 5, 2018

(l to r): Keymah Durden, Damien Forshe, and Randy McShepard founded Rid-All in 2010.
Laura Watilo Blake

It was a notorious dumping ground — a desolate zone littered with burned-out cars, rusted appliances, loose tires, trash and brush. Abandoned industrial buildings and homes with boarded-up windows wore the signs of decades of neglect in the 23-acre Forgotten Triangle in Cleveland, Ohio’s Kinsman neighborhood.

No one seemed to care. “You name it, everything was dumped there,” including dead bodies, says Damien Forshe, who points to his cousin’s home in the distance, bordering the property of today’s Rid-All Green Partnership urban farm. Forshe’s uncle owned a corner store in the neighborhood — the owner of Rid-All Exterminating is rooted here, in this pocket of the city where dreams were lost. “People didn’t want to use this park because they felt like something bad was going to happen to them — that’s the way it was,” he says.

Today, this once forgotten zone is an unforgettable illustration of how a community can transform blight into hope — how innovation can literally nourish people who are hungry for a better life. This plot of land is the site of Rid-All Green Partnership: a 3-acre urban farm, educational center and entrepreneurial hotspot that has evolved into a global model of how urban agriculture can make a sustainable economic and health impact on a community.

Forshe is owner of Rid-All Exterminating, a family-owned business he started 20 years ago out of an opportunity to service public housing. Initially, Forshe went to work for Orkin — that was 1994, when the pest control giant was vying for a contract with the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA). “My mother-in-law owned an apartment building over in East Cleveland, and she had a technician from Orkin who was working in her building,” Forshe recalled. She found out about the contract-in-the-works — and that Orkin was looking to hire workers from the city. Forshe inquired about the job. “They hired me, and I was working under contract for a couple of years,” he recalled.

Forshe has always been a pro-active personality with a bit of an independent streak — and he has a visceral concern for public health. That’s the common thread with his pest control career and the Rid-All Green Partnership initiative. That, and a desire to be a starter—which explains why a couple years into working the contract through Orkin, Forshe began asking CMHA how he could become an independent vendor. He got his pest control license, certification for operating a Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) and bid on the contract. “I was awarded it in 1997 — and it’s been history ever since,” he says.

Ed Parker, a local Cleveland artist, donated a statue to Rid-All. The statue is modeled after one of the characters in “Brink City,” a comic book produced by Rid-All.
Laura Watilo Blake

SERVING IN THE CITY. CMHA includes roughly 20,000 housing units, and Rid-All is one of a few vendors providing pest control services there, servicing 9,000 accounts in CMHA alone. “In public housing, there is a need for pest services no matter what — for public health,” Forshe explains. Rid-All also has customers outside of CMHA. What Forshe loves about the business is the people. “I enjoy engaging with them and helping them solve their problems,” he says.

Problem-solving is something Forshe does well. And that was essentially what got him going on the Rid-All Green Partnership, which has become a model for how to transform a broken neighborhood into a vital, job-providing, food-rich center for learning. More than 4,000 people visit Rid-All annually. “We’ve hosted people from the White House, CEOs, mayors,” says Randy McShepard, a partner in Rid-All and vice president of public affairs at RPM International, a world leader in specialty coatings and sealants.

McShepard has spent the last two decades consulting with Community Development Corporations on development efforts and formed a public policy think tank in Northeast Ohio called PolicyBridge that reports and offers recommendations on urban core issues like jobs, education, quality of life, housing and health disparities. Their report, Rebuilding Blocks, is what captured the attention of Forshe and Keymah Durden. Its recommendations included ways to repurpose vacant lots and homes following the Foreclosure Crisis, which hit Cleveland’s Central Neighborhood particularly hard, along with several other Cleveland neighborhoods.

The health disparities of this neighborhood were eye-opening. “There’s a 20-year life expectancy disparity between people here and in communities eight miles away,” says Marc White, Rid-All farm operations manager. “The infant mortality rate is off the chain at nearly five times the national average.”

Forshe says, “We wanted to address this from the standpoint of health and wellness, job creation, education.” Forshe is out in the neighborhoods, servicing pest control accounts. He is on the ground level of the living, employment and nutritional conditions in the city. Not to mention, Forshe had lost family members to diabetes — a common theme in urban food deserts where grocery staples too often come from gas stations, convenient marts or fast-food chains.

White says, “Most days, many folks, especially in low-income areas, are making food choices with their wallets. It’s, ‘I buy what I can afford,’ instead of making an educated choice based on the knowledge of the food they are consuming.”

But access is a barrier. Where can this community even get “good food?” Beyond that is addressing the economic factors contributing to this wide gulch between the health and hope of people in the urban core and those just miles away.

Job creation. Increasing property value. Providing health education. Growing nutritious food. Restoring hope to a broken community. These were lofty goals for an urban farm — more complex and visionary than growing tomatoes in the neighborhood. Forshe was stepping way beyond the boundaries of running a pest control business. Through his experiences, he saw even more opportunity to help people. “It’s more than growing food — it’s growing community. Growing people,” Forshe says. “It’s engaging the community, being creative. We’re making soil, fish farming, providing education — we are filling the community’s needs and not just filling the space by growing food without a system to make it sustainable.”

The Rid-All Green Partnership has transformed a formerly blighted area of Cleveland’s Kinsman neighborhood into a vibrant green space. “Since we’ve been here, the families have come back,” says David Hester, a member of the Rid-All Green Partnership team. “We barbecue, kids play basketball. It’s a safe environment.”

TRANSFORMING A COMMUNITY. The other day, White harvested 45 pounds of kale greens from Rid-All’s hoop houses. White leads a tour of the farm, showing students a ripe apricot growing in the orchard. “They didn’t know where fruits and vegetables came from,” he says. “They thought they came out of a bag from the store.”

Rid-All’s property includes four hoop houses that produce more than 1,000 pounds of food per house, per season. Because of the year-round growing environment, the farm plants three crops annually: spring, summer and fall. “We can grow our cold crops in the winter,” says urban farmer David Hester, affectionately known as “Dr. Greenhand.”

Fish farming is a main income-driver for the organization, and Rid-All sells its fresh tilapia to locals and area restaurants. Rid-All can grow 1,000 to 1,500 fish per aquaponic system, and with a larger facility under construction, the farm will move from producing about 5,000 fish annually to up to 300,000, including yellow perch, bluegill, bass and tilapia. “We’ll demonstrate fish farming and be a full fish and seafood facility,” Forshe says. How? By building it with their own hands.

Forshe has a construction background, and partnering with local contractors, he and others physically cleared the land and built the hoop houses, teepee, everything you see on the property. “We got down there and actually did the work ourselves,” he says. That includes clearing piles of tires and broken appliances — the junkyard that had developed on the parkland that’s now a farm. “We found a street that we didn’t realize was there because it wasn’t used for 40 to 50 years. We were able to clean that up — and now it’s our street.”

All of this building and restoration happened since the City of Cleveland granted Rid-All the parkland to develop in 2011. The local Community Development Corporation, under the leadership of Tim Tramble, wanted to convert the area into an urban agricultural zone. “They wanted to see innovative urban agriculture programs and initiatives take over that green space,” McShepard says.

Rid-All jumped on the opportunity, inspired by the PolicyBridge report and a desire to reshape and reposition the desolate space. There were doubters. “They probably didn’t think we were going to do well,” Hester says.

Growing food in the ghetto?

“When they placed us here, it was like a blessing,” Forshe says. “They thought they were putting us back in a hole where no one could see us, and we ended up creating this.”

Cars will pull up along the drive or park across the street from Rid-All Green Partnership. “Can I help you?” one of the five regular workers or volunteers ask.

“They say, ‘I like to come here for some peace,’ or, ‘I came here to clear my head,’” McShepard says. “We say, ‘Absolutely. Make yourself comfortable.’”

As Rid-All began transforming the property with hoop houses and agricultural activity, people began returning to the park just 50 feet from the site. It had a slide, swings, some benches. No one ever used it. “A single mom wouldn’t feel comfortable taking her child down there because she never knew what was lurking behind the brush,” McShepard said of what it was like before.

But gradually, children and their parents began showing up again. Kids started shooting hoops. Rid-All set out water jugs and became that friendly neighbor, there if you want to talk. “Before long, we saw people coming back to the playground, we saw birthday parties and barbecues.”

The positive energy evolved. Rid-All began hosting community events, such as Soul Vegan Saturdays, which teaches people in the community how to prepare healthy, tasty meals. “There are certain foods I would have never thought to put in my mouth because they were so foreign to me — they basically scared me,” says Jan Thrope, a volunteer at Rid-All and a published author.

Thrope recalls walking on the land that Rid-All occupies back in 2011 when she was working on a book. It was located down the street from a homeless shelter she worked for, today called Family Promise. “It was very eerie,” she says of the space. “There was this feeling that death had happened there, and in truth, it had.”

When Thrope returned, Rid-All was building its first hoop house. “It was so clear that they were infusing life back into the area,” she says, calling Rid-All “The Disneyland of Art and Agriculture.”

In fact, Forshe refers to the Walt Disney documentary as an inspiration. He loves the account of how Disney’s journey began “in the garage with a vision of creating an urban setting where communities and people could come together.”

"There’s a 20-year life expectancy disparity between people here and in communities 8 miles away. The infant mortality rate is off the chain at nearly five times the national average.” — Marc White, Rid-All farm operations manager
Laura Watilo Blake

“That’s what we are doing here,” Forshe continues. “We want the community to get involved, get engaged and feel a part of the movie — not like they are watching the movie.”

Rid-All captures the youth audience with puppet shows and comic books, illustrated by artist Martinez Garcias. They visit schools and invite students and community members to visit the farm — partake. Taste and see. Forshe explained to Thrope, “If we start teaching them early, they’ll get hooked.” Area community programs are coming together — Rid-All is a catalyst for good. “We’re seeing this wonderful interconnectedness,” Thrope says, pointing to the Garden Valley Neighborhood House close by, which partners with Rid-All. Other partners include Environmental Health Watch, the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland, Neighborhood Leadership Institute, Cleveland Foodbank, Western Reserve Land Conservancy — along with businesses and non-profits like the JP Morgan Chase Foundation and the Walmart Foundation.

Beyond this, Rid-All provides job opportunities to the previously incarcerated, homeless and those recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. “They really believe in restorative justice,” Thrope says.

GREEN IN THE GHETTO. Forshe shared a story about how he gave others the opportunity to “do good,” and how it has helped them change their lives’ journeys. Rid-All had launched a program encouraging youth to trade their toy guns in to get the Rid-All comic book. “We collected 120 guns and stored them in a greenhouse —and some kids in the neighborhood discovered that and started breaking in and stealing the guns,” Forshe relates.

Forshe and the Rid-All crew spent a couple of weeks talking about how to best deal with this problem. “Do we hire security?” he says. “How did we deal with the kid without getting them arrested, ruining their lives?”

When the kids returned one day, Forshe saw them trying to get into the greenhouse. He stopped them and said, “I need to talk to you.”

“Who you talking to?” they asked him.

“You.” Forshe said.

“I told them what I was doing here, and talked to them. I said, ‘Let me help you—if you help me by learning what I’m doing and not breaking in.’ They ended up taking me of up on that offer and now they are working for me and learning about composting and biology and science — they’re learning about the farm.”

The kids told Forshe there wasn’t anything to do after school. They started gathering at that park, playing basketball — teams evolved, prompted by a program Forshe’s son started called Shoot Hoops, Not Guns. The boys decided to call their team The Green Team. “The kids who come here, who visit from the schools — they love it here,” Forshe says. “It gives me joy to know that people are getting this experience here and they always have something good to say about what we are doing. That’s a feel-good moment that doesn’t ever go away.”

Rid-All is opening people’s eyes from all over — and including those who grew up miles away and might not have set foot in the Forgotten Triangle before its evolution. Brandon Reynolds, 21, learned about Rid-All through his father, David Reynolds, who crossed paths with Rid-All in his professional life. Reynolds wanted to get more involved in the community. “This is the kind of movement we need in areas in the city like this—the transformation is so incredible,” Reynolds says. “It went from a graveyard to a bustling all-natural farm, and I’m taken away by it.”

So taken away that Reynolds, now a junior at Kent State University majoring in interpersonal communications, is certain he has found his life’s passion — urban farming. He completed Rid-All’s five-month Commercial Urban Agriculture training program last year. He spent weekends on the farm, learning every aspect of its operations. Reynolds, an intern at Rid-All, says, “They’re really about making this concept available to other people.”

And others are asking—how do we do this? How can we create a Rid-All in our neighborhood? The organization received a call from Saint Stephens Community House in Columbus, Ohio. “They were struggling with helping their residents think about eating healthy,” McShepard says. “They saw our farm and said, ‘We want this in Columbus.’”

A Rid-All group went down to their site, built a greenhouse, double-wide hoop house, fish tanks, a teepee and a compost station. A group from Columbus took Rid-All’s five-month training course so they could learn how to operate the model—make it last. When the farm opened, the mayor of Columbus invited Rid-All to speak at the dedication. “He was blown away when he saw the finished product,” McShepard says.

“We drove home that night and said, ‘Wow. We did it. We took our model, we helicoptered it into another city, and we built this, trained the people and now it’s up and running,’” McShepard says. “It’s proof that this can work.”

Rid-All has received calls from urban community groups is Atlanta, Buffalo, Detroit — the list goes on. They’re hearing about Rid-All’s success story from media, word of mouth. “So many people have been impacted and inspired,” McShepard says.

“We have people walk through our farm and they break down in tears,” McShepard continues. “I say to our team, ‘I’ll tell you why that is. It’s because people have so much hope for urban core communities. They want to see things done the right way. When they walk through our farm, they feel like someone did it right, and there is a real sense of pride.’”

And, the farm is helping to restore life — giving people new beginnings. This is the case for George Johnson, who is about to embark on a two-year apprenticeship at Rid-All Green Partnership. Johnson learned about the initiative when he was in rehab for a cocaine addiction. His counselor drove him to the farm and introduced him to Forshe and the group. A lightbulb clicked on for Johnson, a chef. He had always “played with food,” but never gotten his hands dirty like this.

He received a scholarship to take a six-month course geared toward veterans — Johnson served on nuclear submarines in the 1980s. Now, he is signing up for school. “I became an advocate for agronomics,” he says. He also caught the entrepreneurial bug and began growing on his own, developing a hot sauce line called Hot Man Cleveland. “I owe a lot of this to Rid-All,” he says.

GROWING PRIDE. “Ladies and Gentlemen, let me be the first to tell you, the Calvary ain’t coming.”

McShepard repeats something Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson often says that strikes a chord with what Rid-All is doing. They’re not waiting for help. They’re building the answer.
“It’s up to us to decide what we can do, big or small, to correct the course and bring our communities and neighborhoods back,” McShepard says. “It doesn’t have to take a million-dollar check to do it. It’s just people, working together, doing what we can. If we can take that mindset that the cavalry ain’t coming and it’s up to us to be the cavalry, we can really change the trajectory of neighborhoods and communities across the country.”

Keymah Durden walks the Rid-All property, soaking in the progress — the transformation. “The impact has been huge,” he says. “This area in Kinsman called the Forgotten Triangle is now referred to as an urban agriculture innovation zone. What a switch!”

“We are now creating and bringing life to a community that was dead and forgotten,” Durden continues. “Residents take great pride in saying, ‘We live where the urban farm is,’ where before residents wouldn’t want to say anything about where they lived.”

Rid-All is driving up local property values, providing local jobs, serving as an oasis in a food desert. It’s so much more than an urban farm — it’s a community development movement. “We want to be that one project that continues to push back against that idea and say, ‘You can run a successful urban farm using standard business practices and make it work,’” Durden said. “We know everyone needs to eat. Food is the longest relationship you’ll have in your lifetime. Make healthy choices and you will see a quality of life that you didn’t before.”

Thrope will attest to that. Rid-All changed the way she lives. She was diagnosed with dermatological lupus and her condition has been in remission since she has adopted the nutrition practices she learned at Rid-All’s Soul Vegan Saturdays and through its other programs. She’s a believer in what the farm can do for people — and the community at large. “The intent is to bring out the best selves of all who enter there — it’s never about looking at problems, it’s about restoration and creating opportunities for people,” she says.

Forshe says, “Sometimes, I just pull across the street and look at it. It’s hard to believe this is really here and it exists and what it’s doing for the community, our world, and people, are coming from all over to see it.”

Forshe is equally blown away that his pest control firm is now 20 years old, providing quality careers for family members including his brother, son, two nephews and a cousin. And, as for Rid-All’s transformation of that Forgotten Triangle, he says: “I’m just proud that this is making a statement that we are here to help. We come in peace.”

The authors is a Cleveland-based freelance writer and frequent editorial contributor to PCT magazine.