Such a beautiful way to plant a seed!
A New York man builds a Harlem garden, growing food and children,
Tony Hillery is the founder of Harlem Grown, an organization that teaches young people how to garden, Upworthy reports. It all started in 2008 when Hillery looked to be of service after being struck by the financial crisis. When reading about the plight of underfunded inner-city schools, he decided to try his hand volunteering at a school in Harlem, NY.
“I couldn’t have been more arrogant. I walked through the doors of the first elementary school I could find, asked for the principal, and said: ‘I’m here to try to break the cycle of poverty.’ She assigned me to the lunchroom, and that’s where I started volunteering five days a week,” Hillery recalled.
Soon, the kids took a liking to “Mr. Tony,” many of them reminding him of his children. When Hillery learned that nearly half of those smiling faces were unhoused and living in shelters, he knew he had to do something to help. Across the street from the school was an abandoned garden that the kids called the “haunted garden.” After getting the necessary paperwork to begin cleaning it up, Hillery figured he’d start there, not knowing what he would do with the space. That’s when he got a suggestion from one of the students at the school.
“One morning, a little girl tugged on my shoulder. A tiny little thing with glasses so big. Her name was Nevaeh. ‘Heaven’ spelled backwards. And she said: ‘Mr. Tony, why don’t we plant something,’” Hillery said.
A former limousine company owner, Hillery didn’t know the first thing about gardening. But some internet searches later, he decided to start by growing herbs, inviting Nevaeh and her kindergarten class to plant the first seeds.
“There wasn’t much structure in the beginning. A lot of times, I’d just sit around with the kids and look at clouds. But over time, the garden became a sort of outdoor science classroom. All of us were learning together. If something died, we’d just try a new spot. We learned about worms, ladybugs, and praying mantises. Then we learned about food systems. I couldn’t help but notice the diets of these kids: all sugar and processed food. Some of them couldn’t name a single vegetable. But how could you blame them? There are 55 fast-food restaurants in this community, but not a single supermarket,” said Hillery.
Eventually, Hillery began growing vegetables with the children, Nevaeh taking the lead and owning the garden.
“Those became her plants, not mine. Whenever volunteers came to help with composting — Nevaeh would take the lead. And if you were doing it wrong, she’d grab that rake right out of your hands,” he said.
That was a decade ago. Now, Hillery has expanded his operation from one garden to 12 urban farms across Harlem, building out Harlem Grown into a full-fledged organization and helping kids across the community. Not only does he teach them how to garden, but he also helps them learn about science and agriculture in general. To date, Harlem Grown has given away more than 6,000 pounds of organic produce to the community, and Nevaeh and her mom are still involved, her mother serving as Agricultural Director of the farms. Hillery said the goal was always to grow healthy children, not just farms.
“When you sit in this garden on a summer day – you hear things. There are fourteen homeless shelters within a four-block radius. So when it’s hot outside, and the windows are open, you can hear the stress of poverty…When [the kids] first come into this garden – they’re so freakin’ happy. Especially the really young ones. But at the end of the day, they’ll say: ‘I’m going home.’ And home means shelter. It’s an epidemic, man. 115,000 kids in this city are living in shelters. It’s a freakin’ epidemic. But it’s invisible. You’d never know these kids are [unhoused] because they’re so happy,” Hillery lamented.
“But something happens around 9, 10, 11. I see it all the time. Those eyes dim, man. It’s just life. There’s too much stress around here. And they grow up fast. They lose that light. I just want to slow it down, that’s all. I want them to have a safe place where they can just be them. That’s all any of us want, right? To slow it all down so we can find out who we are,” Hillery added.
He has seen how gardening helps create a new reality for the children through his work, allowing them to bloom in ways he’d never imagined. Nevaeh, now 16, is an honor roll student. Recently, when her grade in math slipped, Hillery offered to get her a private tutor. She declined, using gardening as a coping mechanism before acing her math final.
“She was the tiniest little thing when I met her with glasses so big. But even back then, she had everything she needed. It just required a little protection. And a little time. She just needed some space to grow,” said Hillery.
To learn more about Harlem Grown and Hillery’s work, check out the video below.
Thank you for your service Tony! Because of you, they can!
Photo Courtesy of Harlem Grown