In the heart of Harlem, you’ll find Harlem Grown: an organization created by Tony Hillery nearly a decade ago, which provides the resources and tools for young people to learn the invaluable skill of gardening.
Harlem Grown’s mission statement is “to inspire youth to lead healthy and ambitious lives through mentorship and hands-on education in urban farming, sustainability, and nutrition.” Hillery’s journey with Harlem Grown began during the 2008 financial crisis, where he sought out ways to help those in need. This led him to volunteering at an inner-city school in Harlem.
In an interview with Humans of New York, Tillery recalled his first day of volunteer work. “I couldn’t have been more arrogant,” he said. “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.”
There, the children adored Hillery and affectionately called him “Mr. Tony.” Many reminded him of his own children, which incited him even more to create change when he learned that nearly half of the children were living in shelters. Just across the street, there was a neglected garden where cats, rats, and pests resided. Unsure of what to do just yet, Hillery knew that this garden that the children referred to as “haunted” could be a starting point.
“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,’” said Hillery, who knew nothing about gardening at the time. After a few lessons through Google, he decided to begin with growing herbs, and invited Nevaeh and the rest of her kindergarten class to plant the initial seeds in what would become a thriving and lively garden.
“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.
Nevaeh, who sparked the idea as a tiny kindergartner, took the lead throughout the process as they began expanding the garden and growing vegetables. This origin story occurred nearly 10 years ago. Today, Harlem Grown includes 12 urban farms all across the city. The non-profit organization has donated over 6,000 pounds of organic produce to the community.
It’s thrilling to report that Nevaeh remains involved, with her mother serving as Agricultural Director of the farms. The goal, Hillery said, was always to grow healthy children and not just farms. He witnessed that goal come to fruition through Nevaeh’s own evolution, along with many other children’s. At 16-years-old, Nevaeh is an Honor Roll student and uses gardening as a way to relieve stress. “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.
However, the amount of unhoused children in Harlem alone remains a crisis. “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,” he said.