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From Bullets to Blooms -- AG Couple Transforms Lots on the South Side of Chicago to Give Youth a Future

Quilen and Hannah Blackwell have been called by God to reach youth in the Englewood neighborhood -- sharing Christ with inner-city youth and giving them hope -- in a very unusual way.
Englewood is one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the notoriously dangerous southside of Chicago. In fact, from May 13-22, 50 crimes were reported in Englewood by SpotCrime.com, including 22 shootings, 12 assaults, four thefts, and three robberies, along with other criminal acts. It’s not really that comforting to know that according to some reports, the area has seen a reduction in crime!

And naturally, with its abandoned buildings, high-crime rate, trash-strewn empty lots, and gang activity it makes perfect sense that God called Quilen (KEY-len) and Hannah Blackwell to Englewood to reach the often-hopeless youth living in Englewood through farming.

That’s right. Farming. In a crime-infested inner-city neighborhood. That makes no sense . . ., but God evidently begs to differ — a $2 million “differ” that’s impacting young lives on a daily basis.


After graduating from college, Quilen, now 39, did a stint in the Peace Corp before returning home to a very comfortable life in Madison, Wisconsin. There he attended his home church, Northside AG. As he refamiliarized himself with life in the U.S., he became more and more restless and discontent.

“In 2011, I knew what God wanted of me, so I sold everything and took up my Cross and followed Him fully,” states Quilen. “I went to Chicago without knowing anyone. I started ministry school and I tutored high school students from Englewood.”

As Quilen worked with the students, he realized the hopelessness so many of them faced. He found himself investing himself more and more into the lives of students, but how could he break the cycle of poverty and violence that was seemingly inherent?

During this time, he met Hannah, the daughter of a Mennonite youth pastor in Kansas, who also felt a burden for inner-city youth of Englewood, and in 2015, they were married, making their home in Englewood.


Exodus 4:2 reads, “Then the Lord said to him, ‘What is that in your hand?’ ‘A staff,’ he (Moses) replied.”

Quilen had little money, but he felt a calling to help the young people of Englewood break free of poverty, but not just to leave Englewood, but to become part of the solution to revitalizing the area, which decades ago, was once a safe and vibrant part of Chicago.

As the Blackwells looked around Englewood and its abandoned empty lots . . . wait, there were a lot of empty lots — they could do something with that!

“We originally were looking for anything that could really bring serious industry to the community,” Quilen says. “We looked at food, switchgrass, biofuels, but then God gave us the idea of growing flowers. We learned it was a $35 billion industry that gets 80% of its flowers from overseas.”

But in order to get started as a non-profit, it takes money that Quilen and Hannah didn’t have.

“We started with zero dollars, so we held a fundraiser and took pies-in-the-face for $100 each to raise money for filing as a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization,” Quilen says. “Then with our connections with the local high school and working with the alderman’s office, we were able to get an abandoned lot donated to us.”

The Blackwells’ non-profit program began in 2014 and became officially known as Eco House with Southside Blooms the floral farming portion of the program, which launched in 2020.

“That first free lot we turned into a farm,” Quilen says. “We kept demonstrating progress, and people kept giving us land and we began receiving foundation grants and finding donors. And in 10 years, we’ve become a $2 million-a-year, solar-powered, pesticide-free organization!”


Quilen and Hannah explain that when they first started out, the basement of their home served as a nursery for the flowers as even though they had the land, workers were needed.

“At first, we just went out into the neighborhood, letting kids know we had jobs available,” Hannah says. “Then during school lunchbreaks, I would go in and make a bouquet, to demonstrate how to do it and help create more interest.”

The Blackwells also partnered with other community non-profits and organizations to find potential employees ages 16 to 25 to work in their Southside Flowers program. Younger children now learn about the program through Eco House programs that talk about solar-powered farming and treating the land with respect and as a resource.

“We offered what other mentoring non-profit organizations could not – jobs,” Hannah says. “We became a nice complement of support to what others were doing by teaching skills and putting money in students’ pockets, which often went to help support their families.”

The Blackwells explain that the employees, who start out at $15 an hour, are trained and made responsible to prepare, seed, weed, water, and harvest the flowers on the farm, which has now grown to 10 acres, including a lot in nearby Gary, Indiana. Workers also create arrangements and set up the displays for weddings, celebrations, and corporate events.

Since opening Southside Blooms four years ago, the focus has been mostly on fulfilling orders in the region, bringing “new money” into to the community. However, this spring arrived with a new and expanded opportunity.

“For the first time, we are now shipping flowers nationwide,” Hannah says.

“That includes all kinds of flowers, like tulips, sunflowers, marigolds, zinnias, lilies, gladiolas, peonies, and the list goes on and on,” Quilen says. “We currently have about 30 youth on our payroll now, but that could expand as the demand for flowers grow along with additional lots to increase our offerings.”

In addition to flowers, Southside Blooms employees also keep bees and sell honey and honey candles, raise chickens and sell eggs, and create and sell greeting cards. Eco House also impacts the lives of hundreds of younger children each year through various educational programs including workshops in the flower shop, on the farm, and with presentations at various clubs.


At first, the work at Southside Blooms was seasonal as Chicago is a far-from-favorable place for growing flowers outside during the winter months. The Blackwells noticed that without jobs, and perhaps just as importantly, without the positive impact of interacting with positive role models, it negatively impacted the youth.

“We added a second hoop house (greenhouse) to help extend the growing season for some of our flowers and extend employment, but that wasn’t enough,” Quilen says. “So, two years ago, we became a year-around florist offering year-around employment for some employees.”

No, the Blackwells haven’t developed flowers that can withstand Chicago winters, but they have their basement — the original location for the Southside Blooms operation.

“We force-grow tulips all winter long,” Quilen says. “Last year we grew about 30,000 tulips and provided several full-time jobs throughout the winter.”


The Blackwells don’t have Bible studies with employees, but through forming relationships with the students, it’s common for conversations to turn toward God — they refer to it as marketplace ministry.

“We’re meeting people’s needs through providing jobs, and once we’re working with them, we have a lot of those organic conversations around God and Jesus,” Quilen says. “One of the best times is when we’re doing weddings — many of our students are from single-parent or never-married-parents families. Naturally, we then talk about marriage, what the Bible says about marriage, and why marriage is important.”

Rihanna, who’s 17, has been working at Southside Blooms for five months. Noting how the job has helped her become more responsible, she says she really enjoys learning the “hidden tips” while perfecting her craft, and her goal is to one day become a team lead.

And the thing Rihanna enjoys about working with the Blackwells is telling. “Everyone is very understanding and (they) create open environments,” she says.

The Blackwells say that they’ve seen employees change over time, developing a realization of God in their lives, and drawing closer to God.

“We are very open about our faith,” Hannah says. “They know we could be anywhere else, but we’re here because of God’s and our great love for them . . . through our work, they can tangibly see that God did not forget about them.”

Sixteen-year-old Davion has been working at Southside Blooms for nearly a year. He enjoys working with flowers and conversing with the other employees, but his favorite jobs are making wreaths and candles.

Davion says, “Learning cool life hacks and making connections,” are two things that have improved his life at Southside Blooms, adding that, “working with the Blackwells makes me feel more determined and focused.”

Chris and Aziza Butler, who have been pastoring Chicago Embassy (AG) Church (now in South Holland, Illinois) since 2016, say they were aware of the Blackwells’ dedicated work in Englewood prior to the church moving locations (through a merger) and the Blackwells beginning to attend the church in 2020.

“As someone involved in community engagement, I saw the work the Blackwells were doing and the love they have for the community,” Chris says. “And then, when Quilen and Hannah came to the church in 2020 . . . it was just really special to me to get to know them.”

Aziza agrees, noting how Hannah is a strong and positive role model, wherever she goes.

“Hannah’s very humble, but a strong, confident leader, which is beautiful,” Aziza says. “She’s a very attentive and caring mother (of three), very warm and friendly, and super-supportive. If you ask anything of her, she’s very open to not only helping, but doing more than what was asked.”

The Butlers, who both express admiration for the Blackwells’ creativity and passion for the Lord displayed in Englewood, also are deeply thankful for the work they do in children’s ministry at the church.

“They have really connected in children’s ministry,” Chris says. “They really carry the ministry in their hearts and have helped the church serve the kids — they lend their expertise, insight, and creativity — they’re so all in!”

“The Blackwells are so amazing,” Aziza says. “May the Lord multiply them!”


At the Cook County Jail and Juvenile Detention Center (Greater Chicago area) there’s an interesting crossroads. On one side, you have an institution filled with potential future and current felons. While on the same property, but giving off an entirely different feel, is one of Southside Blooms largest lots of flowers.

“Our program is designed to go after the most-at-risk youth — those involved in gangs and the trappings of the street,” Quilen says. “Cook County Jail has a juvenile and adult probation service. As our credibility grew, we began working with the jail and they allowed us to use some of their land for our flowers. Some of the youth who work the lot are from the detention center while others from the center go to different farms to work.”

Currently the Blackwells are considering where to start their next farm location in order to reach more youth, with places like St. Louis, Philadelphia, Newark, and Wichita currently in play.

“Cities have seen what God has done through Eco House and Southside Blooms and have reached out to us to come,” Quilen says. “But we’re not quite ready to expand yet – it has to be in God’s timing, not ours.”

However, in Englewood, the Blackwells are working to expand as soon as possible.

“At the moment we have a wait list of close to 60 youth, which is why we are pushing so hard to grow so that we can open up as many opportunities as possible,” Hannah says. “Yes, we’ve definitely had our share of young people who have come in and have struggled with the expectations and structure of a job, but it’s so rewarding when they rise to the occasion.”

As the Blackwells await God’s provision and direction, they encourage others in the AG community to follow the leading of the Lord, no matter where it takes them, as God has a way of surprising people.

“If you would have told me in 2011, that if God called me to Englewood in Chicago, that 10 years later I would be leading a multimillion-dollar social enterprise, I would have laughed,” Quilen says. “But what we’ve learned is don’t sell God short . . . this really is a Kingdom project. We were inspired by our faith to do this, and we believe this is God’s gift to the inner city.”

Dan Van Veen

Dan Van Veen is news editor of AG News. Prior to transitioning to AG News in 2001, Van Veen served as managing editor of AG U.S. Missions American Horizon magazine for five years. He attends Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Missouri, where he and his wife, Lori, teach preschool Sunday School and 4- and 5-year-old Rainbows boys and girls on Wednesdays.