Building community with garden beds and soup
A white picket fence denotes the boundary of the urban oasis on Thornton Street in Roxbury. It’s an image that usually calls up the idea of middle-class suburban life, the individuality of the American dream. But the white picket fence here is a little different, points out Jay Vilar, program director for the nonprofit Haley House. Its lack of a front gate allows the people of the surrounding community to come and go as they please.
What lies beyond the fence is an urban farm and community garden, built by and for the neighborhood it serves. Walking along its perimeter, Vilar is dressed for a crisp fall day in jeans and a navy vest. He points out the raised garden beds, each tended to by a member of the community. His own box features large stocks of leafy green kale, an abundance of peppers and a lone eggplant struggling to grow.
Moving farther onto the large plot of land, Vilar’s Converse-clad feet lead him down the long rows of the urban farm. Although the primary growing season has come to an end, bright orange marigolds, other edible flowers and herbaceous plants remain. In one corner, he gestures to where Haley House plans to build an outdoor teaching kitchen, reflecting the organization’s responsiveness to community needs — a key feature to its long-running success.
“The overarching mission of Haley House is food with purpose and the power of community — serving those made most vulnerable through social injustice,” Vilar said.
A Washington-D.C.-area transplant, Vilar came to Haley House with a background in business development and sustainable food practices. He joined as program director in 2021, following his desire “to be able to go deep into one organization’s work.” He was brought on as part of an effort to revitalize the programs that had been hampered by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. As program director, Vilar oversees the organization’s urban agriculture, nutritional coaching and reentry programs, and works to support “our program managers that do that work day-to-day.”
Haley House was founded in 1966 by Kathe and John McKenna when they rented a South End apartment to house men they found sleeping on the street, offering them a cot and a warm meal.
In the almost six decades since, Haley House has greatly expanded its operations to include a soup kitchen staffed by live-in volunteers, 110 units of affordable housing, plots of urban agriculture, a food pantry and various educational and training programs for those facing barriers to traditional employment. Today, Haley House’s reach spans the South End and Roxbury.
“I had a friend of mine describe her experience of coming to Haley House. She was like, ‘You know, Haley House is like going to church. You’re gonna get good food, you’re gonna meet some people with great vibes, and they may not have the resources for you, but they know where to go get it,’” Vilar said.
His introduction to Haley House was through its urban agriculture program, which he now directs. The nonprofit is currently the steward of two plots of land: the Thornton Street Farm and the Mel King School Garden. Partnering with other organizations, like Hawthorne Youth and Community Center, volunteers grow produce that is then utilized in the soup kitchen, Highland Park Senior Produce Delivery program and Take Back the Kitchen (TBK) classes.
TBK, also under Vilar’s oversight, is Haley House’s free cooking and nutrition program, which teaches students the benefits of cooking from scratch and provides them with basic cooking skills.
The classes are lively and welcoming, bringing together members from across the community. Chatting animatedly, groups of three stand around raised tables set with cutting boards, knives and sheet pans littered with colorfully chopped vegetables.
David Delvalle, program manager for TBK, captures their attention with an energetic, booming voice: “Alright, chefs — listen up! Now I’m going to show you the best way to dice an onion.” Once his demonstration is complete, the groups return to their task at hand — preparing lemon-herbed chicken and a vegetable sauté.
Once the cooking is finished, each attendee dishes up a plate and sits around a small table, tightly packed with chairs, in a moment of community.
“Each class you see one or two new people in it, which is pretty great because I want them to bring more people. I’m always telling people about this program, so they can be involved in Take Back the Kitchen as well. A lot of people need to cook for themselves, so they can provide healthy foods for their families,” said Ashley Aka, a registered nurse and regular for the past year. Through TBK, she has learned new skills that she has been able to apply to her cooking at home, like how to cut an onion in a way that prevents you from tearing up.
Delvalle said the TBK curriculum “is always changing. It’s always morphing to fit the right population and meet a demographic’s needs.” After serving a 10-and-a-half-year prison sentence and being paroled a year ago, the 30-year-old started working for Haley House in March and is also the first formerly incarcerated man to gain full admission into Tufts University.
Delvalle credits Vilar for his position at Haley House, citing him as “an inspiration” for his ability to pivot from working in the corporate world to now working for a nonprofit. “(He) inspires me to believe that it will work out for me, the fact that I can pivot and leave my life behind and turn to … being an educator. It’s only possible by people like Jay who show me that change is possible,” he said.
Under Vilar, Delvalle has grown as a leader. “Jay is just so understanding … he shows a lot of empathy,” Delvalle said. “I’m grateful to have him as a boss because there’s a lot of other people that would have judged me, that would have not embraced me and not guided me through my transition.”
In addition to TBK, Vilar directly manages Haley House’s Life Foundations Training (LiFT) reentry program. Its intention? To help find and create opportunities for formerly incarcerated people. Returning citizens meet bi-weekly with advocates to prepare a community meal, figure out the specific supports each member needs and develop soft skills. Representatives from reentry community partners are also brought in to share how members can tap into preexisting housing, employment, mental health, job training and education programs.
To manage such a heavy workload, Vilar and his team rely on numerous spreadsheets and calendars to coordinate all of Haley House’s activities. They also place a heavy focus on collecting feedback from community members who utilize its programs as a means to understand the impact they’re having and how they can improve. Ultimately, “a lot of it is understanding what your bandwidth is and what the bandwidth of your team is,” Vilar said.
Vilar is confronted daily with what it means to be at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. He recalls days in dead-of-winter February at six o’clock in the morning when people are waiting in droves outside the soup kitchen that doesn’t open for another few hours. In the bitter cold, community members wait in shivering silence for Vilar or one of his colleagues to come into the kitchen and turn on the lights that connect to a heater and provide them with a “reprieve of heat.”
“There’s no easy solution at any given point,” Vilar said, but “you’re doing what you can.”
According to Haley House’s latest newsletter, in the past year, the nonprofit distributed over 9,000 bags of food through its food pantry, hosted more than 100 TBK classes, delivered over 1,000 pounds of fresh produce to seniors and provided garden beds for over 70 community members.
At its core, Vilar hopes that Haley House is an organization that fulfills the needs of the community it serves rather than one that institutes solutions based on its own perception of what these needs may be. “We’re always paying attention to what the community is asking Haley House to do. If it’s part of our overall mission, we see if we can serve that (in the programs we develop),” he said.
Moving forward, Haley House and Vilar are focused on the 2024 reopening of the Haley House Bakery and Cafe. Established in Nubian Square in 2005, the cafe closed in 2022 following plans for a new building to be constructed directly in front of it. Once construction at its new location is complete, Haley House will restart past programs that relied on the cafe. This includes its social enterprise program that employs returning citizens and provides them with practical training in the food service industry.
Vilar currently has no plans on leaving Haley House anytime soon. “I want to be a part of a world in which all economic barriers cannot exist, and we can all share a meal together, and it’s not the us-versus-them type of experience or have-or-have-nots,” he said.