Tuesday, July 10, 2018

A Blossoming Partnership Grows Beautifully

Monrovia team ready to plant at the West Granby Habitat for Humanity house.

On a cool November 3, 2016 morning, a tractor trailer, emblazoned with the Monrovia logo, arrived promptly at 9:00 a.m. It was loaded with fresh, locally grown stock from its Granby, CT nursery ready for planting at the new Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity home in West Granby, CT. With tools in hand, a skilled Monrovia team led by Mark Hixson and Jess McCue descended on the site to dig, plant, mulch and water an expertly selected variety of plants, shrubberies, and trees in an artfully designed plan; the  perfect finishing touch to the home being readied for its new owners. With the plantings completed by noon, the seeds for a perennial partnership had been sown.

The Habitat-Monrovia partnership germinated when Mark, Monrovia's East Coast Inside Sales Coach, contacted me after reading about our Granby build on a flyer that I posted widely throughout town. Mark said Monrovia would be keen on donating plants to the local endeavor. It would even include Monrovia's design team's expertise led by Jess. The results speak for themselves. Since the Granby home, Monrovia has helped beautify twelve more Hartford Habitat homes, the latest being in 2018 on East Hartford's Bliss Street and Moore Avenue this past June.

Headquartered in Azusa, California, Monrovia Plant Company is a national nursery whose trademark is Grow Beautifully®. "Since 1926, Monrovia has been the nation’s leading premium consumer plant brand, led by a passion for growing the healthiest plants to enhance the beauty of American landscapes." Monrovia has four growing operations: California, Georgia, Oregon and Connecticut covering the four corners of the United States.

Habitat for Humanity has always emphasized the need for its homes to compliment the architectural styles and needs of the neighborhoods and communities in which it builds. House designs are adapted to ensure they support a city's long-term vision and plan of development. One aspect of that design is best described as "curb appeal," which not only considers what the house looks like, but also how it sits on its property and the landscape around it. For Hartford Habitat, Monrovia's willingness to partner is proving strategic. It's an essential element for elevating the profile of what affordable housing really is, and what it can do for a community. Not only does Hartford Habitat build new homes to create home ownership opportunities, it also rehabilitates homes in disrepair. This is especially critical as Habitat looks to work with the City of Hartford's Blight Remediation Team to eliminate blight and return properties to productive use. It's all part of Hartford Habitat's commitment to Habitat for Humanity International's Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative.

The following series of photographs and captions are representative of Monrovia's commitment to Habitat and the greater Hartford community. As Habitat Executive Director Karraine Moody explains, "It's a blessing to have Monrovia on board as a generous partner dedicated to improving the lives of others by sharing the natural beauty of the world that grows around us."

Monrovia's first endeavor in West Granby village was also Hartford Habitat's first rural build; a build much welcomed by Granby townspeople.

Team Monrovia busy planting a pine barrier along West Granby Road,
along with a Birch tree and Lilacs bordering the driveway entrance.

Planting Hydrangeas, Hostas, Day Lilies, and
Carex along the foundation and front walk.

Mark Hixson explains to homeowners Jaime and Ralph Wyman the plant varieties
Monrovia provided, as well as instructions on how best to care for them. 

Next it was on to Main Street in Hartford on June 14, 2017, site of three single family Habitat homes nearing completion, where Monrovia teamed up with Hartford's Capital City YouthBuild to plant shrubberies, perennials, and ornamental trees around each home. 

Monrovia's tractor trailer arriving with plants for
three Habitat homes at 2636, 2644, and 2650 Main Street in Hartford

Moving plants into place takes some muscle.

Karraine Moody (left), Habitat Executive Director, and
Tracy Thomas, Habitat Family Services Director, set
plants in place along the front porch.

Jess McCue and Hartford YouthBuild leader Frank Mangiagli
were thrilled with the results of the collaboration.
Two YouthBuild team members were still
all smiles after a hot day's work.

On October 19 2017, Monrovia arrived on Hartford's South Marshall Street to landscape the three soon to be completed duplexes. 

Monrovia, with the assistance of Eversource volunteers, landscaped the
South Marshall Street duplexes in half a day!

The results are spectacular!

The curb appeal of Habitat's three new duplexes at
161/163, 171/173 and 181/183 South Marshall Street was
greatly enhanced by Monrovia's landscaping

Most recently, Monrovia landscaped new homes at 66 Bliss Street and 9 Moore Avenue in East Hartford. Again, the results are excellent! As Construction Director Kris McKelvie noted, "People have been slowing down as they drive by to compliment the gorgeous gardens." And later this summer, Monrovia plans to plant similar gardens at the new Habitat homes under construction at 35 and 37 Armistice Street in New Britain.

66 Bliss Street, East Hartford.
The garden is thriving as the lawn begins to sprout.

As of the end of 2018, Monrovia's team will have assisted on fifteen Habitat homes since November 2016, which includes the specialty walkway entrance plantings at a rehabilitated home on Hartford's Roosevelt Street. Monrovia's generosity is making a visible difference in the lives of Habitat families, and the neighborhoods where they live. By working together Habitat and Monrovia have grown a blossoming partnership.  Long may it bloom!

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos by Don Shaw, Jr.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

"For the beauty of the earth, For the beauty of the skies"

Mountain Brook as it passes through Wilhelm Farm.
Photo: Peter Dinella

"For the beauty of the earth, For the beauty of the skies"

by Ann Wilhelm

Wilhelm Farm is typical of many small hill farms throughout New England. The 46 acre parcel of land encompasses a variety of landscapes, including open fields, forest, a woodland stream, and other wetland areas. Little of the land is level, and much of it is unsuitable for cultivating crops. Mountain Brook is a woodland stream that bisects the property.

Wilhelm Farm barns and pasture in early fall.
Photo: Peter Dinella

My husband and I bought the North Granby, Connecticut farm from my parents in 2003. I spent many happy hours as a child playing in the woods and splashing in Mountain Brook, with siblings, cousins, or friends. The brook actually flows from south to north, running into the East Branch of Salmon Brook near the North Granby Post Office. The land rises steeply on the west side of the brook, marking the first uplift of the Berkshire Mountains. The brook is fed by many intermittent streams that run down the mountainside in wet seasons and heavy rain events. In the spring, one can find Skunk Cabbage, Trillium, Trout Lily, Wood Anemones, and many other woodland flowers along its banks. Songbirds, woodpeckers, brook trout, frogs, turtles, salamanders, and even an occasional otter have been seen in the brook or the wetlands that surround it. The banks and sandbars are pocked with the tracks of woodland creatures who come there to drink. I frequently hike to the brook at dusk. The tranquility of this spot restores in me a sense of calm and peace after a day spent behind a desk and then a long commute home.

Mountain Brook with its vivid mossy green banks and sparkling clear water.
Photo: Peter Dinella

A beautiful fall triptych of colorful trees on Wilhelm Farm.
Photo: Michael Bentley

On such a walk on an evening last summer, I found the stream running with cloudy, discolored water. There had been several powerful thunderstorms in recent days, so the brook was full, but the water was so turbid that the stream bed was not even visible. The mossy banks which are normally a vivid green, were coated in a layer of reddish-brown silt. This place that always sparkled and vibrated with life looked frightfully dull and dead.

Mountain Brook in distress dulled by silt and sediment.
Photo: Ann Wilhelm

Concerned that the brook was in distress, I immediately called the local Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission. Already alerted by someone far downstream from our farm who also had noticed the alarming discoloration of normally pristine Salmon Brook, the commission had traced the silt to its upstream source -- a recently cleared wooded slope with inadequately built sedimentation ponds.  The offending landowner promptly engaged remediation experts to stabilize the slope and to shore-up the sedimentation ponds. Additionally, significant deposits of sediment in the affected wetlands were carefully removed to mitigate damage to this sensitive habitat using special equipment and manual labor. 

Though relieved that corrective actions were underway, I worried that the damage had been done and I would never again see the brook as it had been. A consulting hydrologist and soil scientist retained by the upstream property owner came to our farm to evaluate the impact on downstream neighbors. Though the water was running clearer than it had several weeks earlier, the stream bed and banks still were coated by a layer of fine, red silt. The slightest disturbance of the stream bed caused the water to cloud. Deeper pools of water remained opaque, with the fine silt particles held in suspension. The expert explained that unlike the situation at the source, these downstream deposits of silt were not enough to warrant human intervention. Attempts to remove the sediment would likely cause more harm than benefit. He said heavy rains and the high waters of spring would wash the silt out of Mountain Brook. These particles would travel through larger and larger waterways until they were eventually deposited as sediment in Long Island Sound. The best course of action was to do nothing; to give the situation time and let nature take its course. He was right! I watched the brook through the late fall and winter and have been delighted to see Mountain Brook returned to a pristine state.

Winter snow and spring rains returned Mountain Brook to it pristine state.
Photo: Ann Wilhelm

Nature’s ability to heal from trauma reminds me of how miraculous our natural world is. The restoration of this one, small jewel gives me hope for the future. Although our environment's natural resiliency struggles to survive in our human wake, it is not too late to reverse the harms we have inflicted on the planet. Spring is the season of rebirth, renewal, and new beginnings. Let's all do our part. We must commit to keeping our environment clean and livable. When added together even small, individual actions, such as buying local food, picking up litter, or planting a tree make a collective, positive impact. "For the beauty of the earth, For the beauty of the skies..." -- let's sing it; let's do it! 

Happy Earth Day!

Ann Wilhelm is a Research Analyst in the University of Connecticut’s Office of Institutional Research and Effectiveness. As part-time farmers and advocates for small-scale agricultural systems, Ann and her husband, Bill Bentley, are implementing several agroforestry systems on their North Granby, CT farm.

Follow Ann on social media: www.wilhelmfarm.com; Instagram: wilhelm_farm; Facebook: Wilhelm Farm

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Fresh Starts Begin with Grace

One of Fresh Start's original furniture offerings, a hand painted garden bench.

As I walked in with Pastor Rick Kremer to tour Asylum Hill's unique non-profit furniture making business, Waseem was feeding a board into a planer, Ron was putting the finishing touches on a cabinet, and two volunteers were crafting tables and lamps. It's a typical busy morning scene on Fresh Start Pallet Products LLC's shop floor. Discarded pallets and distressed furniture are recycled into "attractive, sturdy, and affordable furnishings for home and garden." Fresh Start's mission is to offer meaningful jobs and job training, along with essential life skills to people -- typically unemployed, often homeless, sometimes with severe health or addiction issues -- seeking a way back to reclaim their dignity and self-esteem, all toward becoming productive members of society. Reclamation and renewal are what Fresh Start is all about.

Waseem working at the planer.

Ron putting the finishing touches on a cabinet.

In the Beginning ...

Launched three years ago as a mission-based enterprise, the idea for Fresh Start germinated when artist and community outreach organizer Louisa Barton-Duguay thought that the idle, but fertile, lawn of Hartford's Grace Lutheran Church would be a comforting place for people, especially the neighborhood's homeless seeking a respite from the street, to sit and chat, or simply relax in a moment of quiet solitude. Louisa, Grace's artist-in-residence, thought a garden with simple benches should be the first "seeds" planted. Her vision sparked a spiritual call to action. Lee Whittemore, a retired Hartford Master carpenter, heard it and took the next step with Louisa. At her request, Lee volunteered to build the benches.

Together, as they surveyed the proposed garden location, Louisa and Lee spotted a pile of discarded pallets piled near a recently renovated apartment building across the street. Whittemore quickly rescued them from a fate destined for the the landfill. It was free lumber. As he began constructing basic benches and chairs with the salvaged pieces, more surprises were in the offing.

Whittemore's work attracted the attention of homeless men who had come to Grace for its weekly Friday Gatherings, a free dinner with all the trimmings. They asked if they could help. Instantly, Whittemore had eager assistants. As it came to life, Grace's new garden, with its colorful pallet furniture, drew broad community praise encouraging others to support the effort.

Recently called to Grace's ministry at that point, and moved by the neighborhood's "stories of hungry people with little hope, and many lost dreams," Pastor Rick often wondered about how it came to be that Louisa's wonderful idea, a pile of discarded pallets, and Lee's talents all converged at the right moment to initiate a program destined to become a new church mission. Divine inspiration? Pastor Rick believes so, which led him to ask Louisa and Lee a simple question, "Did you ever think about creating a business?" Without skipping a beat, conversations about starting a business began in earnest. That's when David Eberly, a pianist of note, unknowingly took the baton to orchestrate the next steps.

A Musician Plays the Next Verse 

After overhearing conversations concerning the church's financial challenges, Eberly, blind from birth, called Pastor Rick suggesting they meet with Phil Rockwell and Pete Mobilia, two retirees formerly involved in development and public relations at Asylum Hill's St. Francis Hospital. He thought they might have ideas that could help get Grace on a more stable financial footing.

Eberly spoke with Rockwell and Mobilia, and they set a meeting at Hamilton Heights, the senior living facility Eberly and Mobilia call home. In the meeting Pastor Rick outlined several issues affecting church finances, which generated several comments, but nothing revelatory. However, as a last minute thought when wrapping up his talk, Pastor Rick mentioned the church's latest idea for a neighborhood mission: "building furniture out of used shipping pallets, and in that way inviting people to a new start, a second chance." Another moment of divine inspiration struck. The idea instantly captured the imagination of Rockwell and Mobilia. Taking root strong and deep, the idea ultimately blossomed into what it is today, Fresh Start Pallet Products LLC, a social enterprise with a mission to provide "employment and training opportunities for economically disadvantaged area residents."

Fully on board, Rockwell and Mobilia recommended marketing and public relations ideas to advance the cause. They also knew other people who would leap at the chance to help. The small group soon grew larger. Many volunteers stepped forward to lend a hand. From the very beginning they reached for help from other organizations serving the same population. Discussions with neighboring organizations such as St. Francis Hospital, Chrysalis Center, and Catholic Family Services were encouraging. With enthusiasm running high, a small working team quickly gelled. Its first order of business was funding -- securing enough money to launch the enterprise on a path to succeed. A fundraiser proved just the ticket.

In June 2015 the pallet project team sponsored a night of music hosted by Hamilton Heights. It featured The Great American Songbook with Eberly on the keyboard accompanied by the vocals of Bob Lally, a project advocate and partner at Federman, Lally & Remis LLC. Nearly 100 people attended the concert, which also exhibited recently completed pallet furniture products. Netting more than $23,000, it raised enough money to get the business underway in earnest, and it attracted more advocates from which a vital network of relationships grew. Helping hands quickly multiplied, and a diverse and talented team -- a working committee -- was built that could turn an idea into reality.

With the engine to drive the business firmly in gear, the team worked full speed ahead on the details. It took the necessary steps to establish Fresh Start Pallet Products as a recognized non-profit business with a formal business plan. With Fresh Start's official legal standing assured, the team proceeded to make sure that accounting, insurance, payroll and personnel processes were securely in place.

Fresh Start Opens for Business

Under tents in Grace's backyard, Fresh Start officially opened its "doors" for business in 2015, as a social justice mission focused on changing lives and providing second chances; befitting its motto, Building Furniture -- Rebuilding Lives. "For years, Grace Lutheran has sponsored missions of mercy through its year round Friday night public dinners, and its Janet's Closet clothing shop, both serving people in need," Pastor Rick told me. "Now we have a business focused on justice with a mission that helps people in need who want an opportunity to change their lives."

Soon the furniture offerings evolved from benches and chairs, to a variety of products including tables, planters, window boxes, shelves, and stools.  As sales revenue and donations increased, and winter loomed, the need for more manufacturing space grew. Nearby Trinity Episcopal Church offered its basement where operations continued to grow. What was meant to last for a winter, carried on for two years as Fresh Start added equipment, and engaged in a comprehensive process learning about hiring, personnel selection, productivity, quality, and marketing. As the business continued to grow, it soon became evident a larger, more functional and permanent location would be needed.

Right on cue, committee volunteers found a solution in Asylum Hill with room to house more trainees, as well as its core of dedicated volunteers. Fresh Start had an ideal spot to change more lives. It could focus unrestrained on conducting additional technical training, manufacturing more efficiently, improving its quality, expanding its offerings, and, most important of all, hiring more people in need of a fresh start.

A custom bench ready for final finishing.

Fresh Start's fan-backed chair.

The quality of Fresh Start's furniture has improved significantly under the direction of operations manager Ron Bell (a former trainee and now full time employee) and his team of trainee-employees and volunteers. Its products are becoming hot commodities. Thanks to Mike McGarry's support, Fresh Start's full line of products was featured at February's Connecticut Flower and Garden Show at the Connecticut Convention Center. McGarry, an Asylum Hill Neighborhood advocate and head of Hartford Blooms, the city's annual flower garden tour, was enthusiastic to assist.

In its new location, Fresh Start continued to develop new and amazing products. Along with its benches and chairs, it has built in vogue "steampunk" lamps, display racks for two Salvation Army thrift stores, and creatively modified used furniture acquired from Hartford Habitat's ReStore  -- all of these have contributed to building an inventory of unique and functional home furnishings. As Pastor Rick told me, "Our furniture design has advanced to skilled artisan quality. We call it 'Fresh Start Version 2.0.'" As a prime example, he had me sit in a wooden chair built with the seat contour of a Mercedes. It was so comfortable I felt like driving it home right from the showroom.

The "Mercedes" chair.

Table in Pastor Rick's study.

A handcrafted display table.

A custom "steampunk" lamp.

Awaiting front drawer facades, an old bureau has been transformed 
into a fully functioning potting bench plumbed for water.

A small harvest table ready for delivery.

Progress to Date and Looking to the Future

During the past three years, Fresh Start has offered a second chance to fourteen people, three of whom were hired as full time employees, and has generated revenue approaching $100,000. However, much more is required to grow and sustain the real business -- the business of changing lives; of saving lives. Through improved public relations and marketing, Fresh Start is taking steps to strengthen its bottom line. It's in the final stages of becoming an independent non-profit. As a stand-alone 501(c)(3), Fresh Start's opportunities to raise much needed funding are expected to grow dramatically. Increasing individual and corporate donations, along with obtaining access to more grant funds, are essential to ensuring the healthy cash flow required to grow the business. It would enable Fresh Start to hire more trainees, as well as upgrade tools and equipment -- tools and equipment essential to ensure its trainees obtain the market-ready skills necessary to re-enter the workforce.

Fresh Start welcomes all who want to support the program. Interested parties seeking more information about Fresh Start's business, either to purchase furniture, volunteer, or donate money, tools, or equipment, are encouraged to write to Grace Lutheran Church, 46 Woodland Street, Hartford, CT 06105, or call the church office at (860) 527-7792, or contact Fresh Start Board Chair Pastor Rick Kremer at rickkremer@aol.com.

Tour Fresh Start on Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Of special note, on June 13, Fresh Start will host an open house as the last stop on Hartford Blooms' Asylum Hill neighborhood tour. The Asylum Hill tour is part of Hartford Blooms Garden Tours' annual nine-day, June 9-17, bus and walking tour of Hartford neighborhoods.  The open house will feature music, food and flowers befitting the tour's theme: "Jazz, Arts & Flowers." It will be an excellent opportunity to see Fresh Start's operations first hand. Event details, registration and ticket information can be obtained on Hartford Blooms website: http://hartfordblooms.gdn; or by calling its office at (860) 296-6128.

It's spring. It's a time of renewal.

Fresh starts renew lives.

Fresh starts begin with grace.

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos by Don Shaw, Jr. and Fresh Start Pallet Products LLC 

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Life Saving Diversions at St. Elizabeth House

St. Elizabeth House, 118 Main Street, Hartford, CT,
home of Mercy Housing and Shelter Corporation's Diversion Center.

Waiting for the door to open, people are lined up as many as forty deep on a typical weekday morning at St. Elizabeth House's main entrance. They are our neighbors in crisis hoping for support once inside. In imminent danger of being swallowed into the downward cycle of homelessness, they are seeking a life saving diversion from living on the street. This is their reality. And it's just a small glimpse of their daily reality that I saw on my recent visit to St. Elizabeth's. I was there to learn first-hand about Mercy Housing and Shelter Corporation's innovative program to divert people away from becoming homeless.

Twenty months ago on July 5, 2016, Mercy Housing and Shelter Corporation (Mercy) welcomed its first clients to its newly created Diversion Center at St. Elizabeth House on Main Street in Hartford. Faced with diminishing federal and state financial support for Mercy's long-established transitional housing programs, Executive Director Dave Martineau, now retired, and current ED Judith Gough led a nine month multi-organization collaboration to develop an aggressive "up front" program designed to immediately divert people away from homelessness --- people who are on the brink of having to survive minute to minute alone with no place to go. "This program enhances Mercy's ability to prevent a person from becoming homeless before their situation spins into a full-blown, life threatening crisis," Executive Director Gough told me.

Throughout its thirty-five year old mission of providing housing assistance and supportive services to persons who are homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless, Mercy has prided itself as being on the forefront of creating workable community solutions. Simple and direct, the Diversion Center's goal is to find its clients safe, stable housing rapidly. The Center's reach is wide. It provides services in what's organized as the Greater Hartford Coordinated Area Network, which, in addition to Hartford and its surrounding towns, includes Enfield, Manchester, East Hartford, Ellington, and Tolland.

"Nearly thirty percent of people in this situation [of being homeless] can be diverted from this tragic outcome with minimal mediation," according to Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness workshops. "Often the solution can be overcome with little or no money to reverse the events leading to homelessness," saving Hartford and Connecticut thousands of dollars.

According to Stephanie Corbin, Mercy's Shelter Diversion Coordinator, the diversion process is best described as highly responsive "front door triage." It provides personalized solutions with accompanying emotional support aimed at mitigating the problems leading to a client's crisis. It's all accomplished at the Center in centralized coordination with several Hartford based agencies serving the homeless, including Journey Home, the Salvation Army, Community Health Resources, and the City of Hartford. Corbin emphasized that the key to successful client outcomes is case manager creativity.  The solution for each client must address the direct question, "What do we need to do right now to keep you out of the shelter system?"

Stephanie Corbin (L), Shelter Diversion Coordinator, conducts a case
conferencing session with case managers (L-R) Jackie Florez, Shefia Ibrahim,
and Latoya Smith to review recommendations for each client.

To counsel people in crisis quickly and directly, a collaborative team of case managers from Mercy, the Salvation Army, and Community Health Resources staff the Center every week. People seeking the Center's support first call the 211 Infoline, which initially assesses the caller's need for services, and then, as deemed appropriate, schedules an appointment for them to see a Center case manager within 24 to 48 hours. Appointments are scheduled Monday through Friday beginning at 9:00 AM.

A sampling of client-specific crisis resolutions include:
  • Arranging a family intervention allowing a teenager to seek redemption and return home after being kicked out for unacceptable behavior.
  • Working with a family facing eviction because of an unresolved rent dispute with their landlord. 
  • Working with a family being evicted for violating a rental agreement by housing non-family members.
  • Assisting a client with short-term financial assistance needed to keep them in good stead with their landlord while they recover from a medical setback.  
  • Providing a client with bus or train fare enabling them to reunite and live with family residing in another state.

In addition to crisis resolution assistance, Diversion Center clients may also see a nurse or physician's assistant in the center's medical suite staffed by Charter Oak Health Center, or find respite in St. Elizabeth House's Friendship Center with a healthy meal, or hot shower.

St. Elizabeth's Friendship Center serves a hot lunch prepared on site. 

Opened just twenty months ago, Mercy's Diversion Center is still in its formative stage, yet its results to date are encouraging. In fiscal year 2017, 2,577 individuals were seen by a case manager. During that period 456 were diverted from homelessness, sixty-two of whom were between the ages of 18-24, and 124 required limited financial assistance that helped them avoid homelessness. Further, 1,244 people, whose cases were not readily resolvable, were referred directly to city shelters, and the remaining group were either referred to other area programs, or were deemed ineligible for assistance.

According to Executive Director Gough current demand for the Center's diversion service is showing an increase over last fiscal year. With one full year of experience, and a second well underway, the Diversion Center has charted a path for other agencies serving the homeless to follow, and to improve upon collectively. It's a path the Connecticut Department of Housing strongly endorses. It's a path leading to life saving diversions, or perhaps one could say "Mercy-ful Diversions."

This post was reprinted in the Mercy Housing and Shelter Spring 2018 Newsletter, and in Journey Home Connecticut's Journey Home News Spring 2018.

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos by Don Shaw, Jr.

For the Record: I am currently a member of Mercy Housing and Shelter Corporation's Board of Trustees. Further, I served as an analyst in developing "Hartford's Plan to End Chronic Homelessness by 2015"; and I represented Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity in the development of a subsequent implementation plan called "Journey Home -- The Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness in the Capitol Region"

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Delicious Food with a Generous Serving of Second Chances

Chris White, a Culinary Training Collaborative graduate,
with Felicia Jenkins, Chef Instructor at Zest 280

Eat lunch at Zest 280 and you'll enjoy a good, healthy lunch along with a generous serving of second chances. I did. On my first visit I savored this mission-based café's homemade Grain Bowl. It was a delicious combination of lentils, quinoa, brown rice, peppers, tomato, kale and grilled chicken. This cozy café at 280 Park Road in West Hartford, sister restaurant to the acclaimed Pond House Café, is celebrating its first anniversary since owners Kim Yarum and Louis Lista reopened it a year ago with a mission dedicated to providing former prison inmates a second chance to earn the skills necessary to re-enter society with a viable career in the workplace.

Zest 280's complete menu is a made-from-scratch fare of soups, salads, sandwiches, and hot plates, all prepared on-site by paid "externs" who commit to a rigorous career development program sponsored by Community Partners in Action (CPA) in collaboration with Zest 280 and The Kitchen at Billings Forge in Hartford's Frog Hollow neighborhood.

On the day of my first visit, Chris White was my host and server. His welcoming style, attention to detail, and willingness to explain Zest 280's mission appropriately complemented Zest’s bright and open atmosphere. He holds a permanent position on the Pond House Café's banquet staff, where he was placed after completing his Zest externship. However, this day Chris was handling Zest's hosting duties gladly to fill a last minute staffing need.

 The healthy, homemade Grain Bowl I ate on my first visit. 

On my second visit my friend had the Roasted Beet Salad and ...

... I ordered the Salmon Cake Served Over Indian Rice.

Working as a Culinary Training Collaborative, CPA, The Kitchen and Zest 280 combine to provide professional training in food preparation and customer service with actual on-the-job business experience to prepare people "seeking a second chance for careers in the culinary arts and hospitality industries." The Collaborative is integral to CPA's mission which focuses on behavioral change and advocacy for criminal justice reform. CPA's "employment, basic needs, reentry and recovery services work together to reduce recidivism, enhance public safety and inform public policy -- all at a fraction of the cost of prison."

Critical to the Collaborative's success is The Kitchen at Billings Forge. Its Kitchen Culinary Program provides desperately needed paid job training opportunities for people who face the often overwhelming challenges of unemployment, low education levels, and high poverty rates. Also, it seeks to help the significant number of former prisoners who are released to Hartford where they often remain only to face high barriers to employment.  The Kitchen's specific on-the-job training creates real-life experiences for participants interested in both culinary and customer service careers. All training is conducted by experienced professionals working side-by-side with students cooking for and serving patrons in its café, as well as at catered events. As reported on its web site "almost 100 folks so far have started the training and, within eight weeks of completing the program, 75% went directly to jobs with starting wages averaging 119% of minimum wage."

Zest 280 fulfills its partnership responsibilities by employing selected Kitchen Culinary Program graduates directly into what it calls its 10-week hands-on culinary "externship." It's a paid position with the opportunity for the graduates to apply their newly acquired skills outside of a training environment. Externs work under the tutelage of Chef Instructor Felicia Jenkins, a seasoned chef who turned her own second chance years ago into more than two decades of combined experience with The Kitchen and the Pond House Café. Felicia guides the externs through a structured program designed to provide advanced culinary skills, as well as "front-of-the-house" customer service skills critical to professional interaction with the public. After completing their externship, participants receive Zest's assistance in finding permanent job placement through interview coaching, and guidance on resume preparation and job application completion. To date twelve externs have successfully completed the program and nine have been placed in area positions.

On my third visit Victoria Negrón was our host and server.
My friend enjoyed the Zesty Starter and I savored
the perfectly spiced Thai Chicken Salad.

Zest 280's bright and open atmosphere.

The Culinary Training Collaborative is an excellent example of a partnership determined to clear a pathway back into society for individuals seeking a second chance. The opportunity to work at Zest 280 provides a vital step along the road to gainful employment. It's a step toward restoring hope and dignity to a vulnerable population searching for an opportunity for redemption.  Zest 280 is The Eatery with a Twist where you'll enjoy a delicious healthy lunch with a generous serving of second chances. 

Believe in second chances and eat with Zest! Often!   

Zest 280 is located at 280 Park Road in West Hartford
(Photo from the Community Partners in Action web site)

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos by Don Shaw, Jr., and one from Community Partners in Action as noted.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Face Reality. Take a Stand. Make a Difference.

Lighting a Candle in Frauenkirsche, Munich, Germany
In Memory of My Father Who Fought in WWII
to Free the World of Nazi Tyranny

January 27, 2018
International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust

Indifference manifests itself in ignorance, silence and acceptance. Turning our backs to the injustices suffered by the marginalized, vulnerable, and victimized in our local communities and around the world is a weak and heartless admission that the status quo is just fine with us when it doesn't affect our lives directly -- at least not yet. And that's a very big "yet" because unchecked turmoil can arrive anytime at our doorsteps regardless of who we think we are.

Let's face reality. The other, the stranger, the not-of-my-kind are real people, not abstractions. Each has a story -- a personal story of a real life, filled the with the kinds of hopes and dreams most of us share in wanting to be accepted, and allowed to live in peace and pursue a purposeful life.

The challenge is to move us from uncaring indifference, or gratuitous caring with no commitment, to making a genuinely positive difference, large or small, however we are able. We must move from ignoring today's reality to facing it head-on by taking a stand, and turn ignorance into awareness and action.

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel fought relentlessly against the force of indifference. It's dangerous. It's deadly. In his December 10, 1986, Nobel Prize acceptance speech Wiesel said,

"We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must - at that moment - become the center of the universe." 

Let's face reality. Let's take a stand. Let's make a difference. Today and always.

A version of this post was published in CT Viewpoints on January 30, 2018.

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photograph by Don Shaw, Jr.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Faith is a Verb

Sign on Bike & Build trailer in the
First Congregational Church of Granby, CT parking lot

“To have faith in something is an inducement not to dormancy but to action. To me, faith is not just a noun but also a verb.” – President Jimmy Carter

I’ve had the good fortune and honor of meeting President Carter a few times including being invited to sit right beside him at lunch on a Habitat for Humanity work site in Haiti, as well as, to attend one of his Sunday school lessons at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. What has always impressed me is his true interest getting to know a person as an individual -- you, me, whomever he is with. As his friend Rev. Eloy Cruz taught him, people need “to love the person who happens to be in front of  [them] at any particular time.” That is, it's vital to deal in specifics (what we actually will commit to doing) in our relationships with the people around us -- those we know, those who are strangers, those we serve, those who serve us, those who need protection from injustice. It led Carter to a question he continues ask himself to this day, “What shall I do?” It’s a question we should ask ourselves always, individually and as a group.

President Jimmy Carter welcoming the congregation
before teaching his Sunday School lesson
at Maranatha Baptist Church, Plains, GA

To help keep me focused on President Carter’s question, I frequently listen to These Hands a song sung by one of my favorite singers Dave Gunning of Nova Scotia. It’s a song I’d like my church to sing. Here are excerpts from the lyrics by Dave Gunning and George Canyon:

Dave Gunning performing at the
Salmon Brook Music Series in Granby, CT

Some hands have held the world together
Some hands have fought in wars forever
Tell me what shall I do with these hands of mine
Some hands have blessed a million people
Some hands helped free the world from evil
Tell me what shall I do with these hands of mine 
The world could use a hero of the human kind
So tell me what shall I do with these hands of mine
Some hands can stop a life from dying
Some hands comfort a baby crying
So tell me what shall I do with these hands of mine 
The world could use a hero of the human kind
So tell me what shall I do with these hands of mine
I want to sing it from my heart, I want to hear it in the wind 'Til it blows around the world, and comes back again All that we can ask, is for ours to be free To use them when we want, for whatever the need
Some hands give voice to a nation
Some hands wrote "The Times They Are a-Changin'"
So tell me what shall I do with these hands of mine
The world could use a hero of the human kind
So tell me what shall I do with these hands of mine

To fulfill our individual and collective responsibility to build a better world, we must answer the question, What shall we do with these hands of ours? Faith is a verb for all of us.

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos by Don Shaw, Jr.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Creating Hartford Collective Culture at Know Good Market

Know Good Market, October 12, 2017
Photo Credit: Taylor Peracchio

Creating Hartford Collective Culture at Know Good Market
By Drew Kozub, Leah Fuld, and Taylor Peracchio, Trinity College '21

What does it mean to be from Hartford? What defines the city’s identity? In recent years, Hartford is developing a reputation for its amazing food truck vendors – and this is no accident. Jeff Devereux (Trinity College ’12) is among the founders of the social enterprise Breakfast Lunch & Dinner (BL&D), which holds many events with the goal of fostering “collective culture” in Hartford. One central event is Know Good Market, an open-air food truck event held in Hartford’s Parkville neighborhood on the second Thursday of the month from April to November. At Know Good Market, residents come together to enjoy food, drink, and local vendors, while also developing a closer attachment to one another and to the city of Hartford.

Devereux describes collective culture as a state in which “everyone feels a part of a community, regardless of race, income, or background. …[E]veryone can get involved and participate in something together.” In this way, Devereux’s efforts with Know Good Market are about far more than having fun. Community events that build social networks, trust, and a sense of shared goals can contribute to building upon Hartford’s strengths and addressing its challenges.

Hartford’s struggles and where they stand
Since the late 1990s, survey after survey placed Hartford among the poorest of all American cities. As its population shrank, poverty and racial segregation grew.[1] As a result, redevelopment stalled and the city fell into an extended fiscal crisis. Many of the suburbs surrounding Hartford are wealthy, but suburban residents typically come into the city only to work, leaving directly after the workday. Downtown, sidewalks that are packed by day empty out in the evening hours. In part as a result, many recent college graduates leave Hartford for bigger cities.[2]

While some view Hartford’s size, poverty, and diversity as a disadvantage, Jeff Devereux sees these challenges as opportunities. Indeed, he believes that the city’s diverse population and relatively small size are both advantages in launching a business like BL&D. Hartford has the components of a great city, but needs a shared sense of identity – a kind of social glue – to bring these ingredients together.

Know Good Market
Know Good Market fosters collective culture by bringing together people from different parts of Hartford for a shared experience. In only its second year, the market has grown from two food trucks and about a hundred people, to twelve vendors and as many as eight hundred people. When we visited on Thursday, October 12, the market was the perfect place for a diverse range of residents to get food and drinks after work. The market had numerous culinary options, and almost all the vendors had lines reaching from their trucks. The lines were a great opportunity to meet new people and start making connections.

Another site for interaction is the market’s single, long communal table. With few other places to sit and eat, people can’t help but sit together and meet a new neighbor. Proximity to Hog River Brewing Company on Bartholomew Avenue also helps build social connections. With beers in hand,  strangers felt even more comfortable beginning to interact.

Hog River Brewery. Photo Credit: Taylor Peracchio

The Know Good Market is successful in building collective culture in part because the vendors share Jeff Devereux’s goal. Butcher & Red, for instance, produces delicious food by buying products from local farmers and using a non-profit, shared kitchen called Hands on Hartford. Participating in the Market has helped them make connections with other vendors in Connecticut and learn more about what is going on in Hartford. Referring to some of Hartford’s other new businesses that participate in the market, they said: “Hog River Brewery and Story and Soil Coffee show us that Hartford can be a place for young and innovative business owners to thrive.” And through Know Good Market, they see these businesses “all supporting each other.” Moreover, they see the market bringing in residents that generate business and increase a sense of collective culture: “Know Good Market attracts people that don’t usually go into Hartford, and it’s becoming a thing for people to do. It gets them out of their normal social bubble to see that Hartford has some cool stuff going on.” Other vendors concurred. Krystal, from Zipped and Printed, which sells a variety of items featuring bright African textiles, sees Know Good Market as “something really special … bringing the Hartford community together regardless of age or other factors.”

Through face to face interactions at Know Good Market, we get to know our neighbors better, we trust them more, and, ultimately, we’re more able to work together to make change. This collective culture makes the city a more attractive place to live and may contribute to combatting “brain drain” and bringing in more tax revenue.

A Know Good Market Vendor. Photo Credit: Taylor Peracchio

You Can Help Too!
So now you might be asking, what you can do to help? The answer is quite simple: attend Know Good Market! Start following BL&D on social media so that you won’t miss upcoming events. Jeff Devereux plans to continue creating opportunities for the community to connect at Know Good Market and beyond. Going to events hosted by Breakfast Lunch & Dinner is a great opportunity to have fun while becoming a part of the collective culture of our city. This sense of shared identity will become a resource in addressing challenges and capitalizing on opportunities as a greater Hartford community.

Want to know more? Visit Breakfast Lunch & Dinner’s website to learn about their full range of projects and upcoming events, and also find links to social media accounts: http://www.breakfastxlunchxdinner.com

This article is the fourth and final in a series of four student blog posts featured from Trinity Assistant Professor Abigail Williamson's first-year seminar Civic Engagement and Community as described in my blog post Classroom to Community at Trinity.

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

[1] Chen, Xiangming and Bacon, Nick. “Confronting Urban Legacy: Rediscovering Hartford and New England's Forgotten Cities.” Hartford: A Global History https://catalyst.library.jhu.edu/catalog/bib_4733740
[2] Whalen, Dana. “Lawmakers Look To Ease The ‘Brain Drain.’” CT News Junkie, 5 Mar. 2017, www.ctnewsjunkie.com/archives/entry/lawmakers_look_to_ease_the_brain_drain/