Tony Hillery was the textbook example of success prior to the 2008 financial crisis. His booming limousine company afforded him all of life’s material luxuries and allowed him to send his children to prestigious private schools. The recession pulled the rug out from under Hillery’s feet, taking his business and credit as people cut back on nonessential spending.
We’ll call this the “before” Hillery
While facing his own financial uncertainty, Hillery began to fixate on schools in low-income areas that lacked funding for anything outside of basic academics. No art, no gym – no creative outlets for kids who desperately needed them. Filled with the naive confidence of someone evaluating a problem from what may as well be another world, Hillery took a subway to Harlem.
“I couldn’t have been more arrogant,” Hillery told Humans of New York. “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.”
Before long, Hillery grew both fond and protective of the young students. The kids looked forward to seeing “Mr. Tony,” treating him like a beloved celebrity. The students reminded him of his own kids, making their struggles feel even more personal to the determined dad. It was abundantly clear, however, that Harlem’s problems were greater than he could have anticipated.
“So when I learned that almost half of them were living in homeless shelters, that shit drove me crazy. It tore me up,” Hillery recalled. “I was looking for some way to help– anything.”
An abandoned garden across the street not-so-lovingly known as the “haunted garden” caught Hillery’s attention. It needed some work, six weeks worth, as it turned out – but it was something. Hillery lugged forgotten junk from the garden, doing his best to avoid the rats and stray animals who claimed the neglected space. After weeks of hard work, sweat, and perhaps some tears, the space was unrecognizable.
“The kids kept asking me what I was planning to do, but I had no idea. Then 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?’”
And so they did.
That fateful moment led to a decade-long journey, one of growth for plants and people alike. Nevaeh’s kindergarten class helped plant the garden’s first seedlings, learning about herbs and produce that kids rarely encountered in the food desert that was Harlem.
“All of us were learning together,” Hillery recalled fondly. “If something died, we’d just try a new spot. We learned about worms, and 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.”
In the 10 years since the garden’s first day of planting, Hillery’s project has blossomed. He expanded the small community garden to 12 urban farms scattered throughout Harlem and even started an organization called Harlem Grown. The organization focuses on turning Harlem into a sustainable community, to help kids grow up with access to fresh and healthy food.
When Hillery boarded a subway to Harlem for the first time, he fully believed he had the power to fix problems that have plagued the Harlem community for generations. What he learned, however, is that you don’t have to change everything to make a massive difference.
Hillery helps kids feel empowered and capable, he helps them overcome the bitter irony of going home to a homeless shelter by creating a place where they feel like they belong. He’s created life-changing gardens where kids play a key role in making sure the plants have everything they need to grow and thrive – and in the Harlem Grown gardens, kids in the community find what they need to grow and thrive as well.