Angels Among Us 2013

Yankee Magazine profiles three New Englanders who are making an extraordinary difference in others’ lives.

By Ian Aldrich

Nov 15 2013

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Photo Credit : Joel Laino
Emily Jodka and Bleu Grijalva inside their greenhouse in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. As co-founders of The New Urban Farmers, they’ve brought their passion for locally grown food and gardening to the kinds of communities that the locavore movement has largely bypassed.
Emily Jodka and Bleu Grijalva inside their greenhouse in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. As co-founders of The New Urban Farmers, they’ve brought their passion for locally grown food and gardening to the kinds of communities that the locavore movement has largely bypassed.
Photo Credit : Joel Laino

Farm to Table
Bleu Grijalva & Emily Jodka

Bleu Grijalva and Emily Jodka pack a passion for local food that extends far beyond what they bring to their own plates. As founders of The New Urban Farmers in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, the pair has spent the past three years spreading their message and knowledge to the sorts of neighborhoods and residents whom the locavore movement has largely overlooked: families in poorer urban areas, whose geographical terrain is marked by fast-food joints and convenience stores.

The seeds for The New Urban Farmers were planted in 2008, when Jodka, who works at Brown University in IT, and Grijalva, a California native who spent 20 years working in the restaurant industry, embarked on the creation of a travel guide to New England’s farms. Logistics helped kill the idea, but so did their realization that the local-food movement largely catered to white, affluent foodies. “So much of the food movement just stops at the city limits,” Grijalva says.

The New Urban Farmers makes its home in a few different areas. In Seekonk, Massachusetts, the group manages a five-acre vegetable farm, where produce is grown to sell at various farmers’ markets. In Warren, Rhode Island, it runs a small orchard, where it has recently planted young apple, pear, and peach trees. But the heart of its work can be found in the Woodlawn section of Pawtucket, at a 500-resident affordable-income housing complex known as Galego Court. There, on the former site of a rundown public park, Jodka and Grijalva oversee one of the most dynamic urban green spaces in all of Rhode Island.

“It’s a farm, it’s a classroom, it’s a place for community, it’s a place for plants,” Jodka explains.

And it really is: raised garden beds stuffed with tomato and pepper plants; rows of greens, herbs, and pumpkins; hillsides bursting with fruit trees and flowers. Inside one of the group’s three greenhouses, staffers are experimenting with hydroponics and farm-raised tilapia. In the spring and summer, kids and parents stream into the space, to help, to tend to their own garden areas, to pick up free food, to just escape the sometimes-complicated urban life that exists outside the garden’s borders.

“There was a bit of a clash,” Grijalva says of their arrival. “They were suspicious about what we were really up to. But as the kids became involved and grew to love it, the parents really warmed to us.”

Today, The New Urban Farmers is an integral member of the Galego community. Money is a constant issue, but the frugally minded Jodka and Grijalva have ensured that their outreach remains a year-round operation. In the winter, the two can be found at the nearby community center, working with kids after school on arts programs and homework support. This past February they launched a free eight-week program in which residents learn about growing and cooking their own food.

On a late spring day their presence is clearly evident. Grijalva is running late to the garden because he’s helping one of the residents move a television set. When he does arrive, he gets there just in time to welcome one of the garden’s regulars, a guy named Miguel, who’s come to tend his pole beans. He’s followed by a neighbor who is looking for tomato plants. “I had planted some,” the man explains, “but then I went away for the weekend, and when I came back they were gone. I asked my neighbor about it, and she said she threw them in the trash.” His face adopts a puzzled look. “She thought I was planting cameras!”

Next comes Dominga, a Dominican Republic native wearing a T-shirt from one of the nonprofit’s annual Earth Day celebrations. She inquires about some kale. “Over here,” Jodka says, walking her over to a bed, where she plucks a big bunch of greens.

But it’s the arrival of 6-year-old Outhi Felix, an energetic kid who’s been a fixture at the garden since he was 2, that puts the biggest smile on Jodka’s and Grijalva’s faces. Within minutes he and Jodka have planted their feet in the children’s garden and are pulling up knotweed.

“Give it a little wiggle,” Jodka instructs as Outhi wrestles with an especially big plant. “Like a tooth.” She starts to help him, trying to free it up, but Outhi soon waves her off. His face grimaces, and then, with one big tug, he manages to pull out a weed that’s nearly as tall as he is. “Boom!” he exclaims triumphantly and throws it. Soon, Outhi becomes the instructor, pushing Jodka to keep up with him. “Come on,” he says. “Get them out of here.”

Later in the afternoon, Jodka meets up with Rafael Ramon, a middle-aged man originally from Puerto Rico who’s called Pawtucket his home for 35 years. Wiry, with a thin, graying goatee framing his narrow face, Ramon comes from a family of farmers. When Jodka and Grijalva announced their plans in 2010, he jumped at the chance to help out. “It changed me a lot,” Ramon says, sitting on a picnic table outside the garden. “I’ve met a lot of new people, and I’ve met a lot of kids who want to learn from me. That makes me feel good. It makes me want to continue. It can be crazy here.” His eyes pan over to the garden, where he’s put in so many hours of his life these past three years. “This is a place that isn’t crazy.”

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Newspaper editor turned massage therapist Steve Gordon, founder of the Hand to Heart Project, near his home in Cornish, New Hampshire.
Newspaper editor turned massage therapist Steve Gordon, founder of the Hand to Heart Project, near his home in Cornish, New Hampshire.
Photo Credit : Joel Laino

Open Heart
Steve Gordon

In the fall of 2007, Steve Gordon embarked on what many colleagues considered a curious career change. A longtime newspaper reporter and editor, Gordon, who lives in
Cornish, New Hampshire, left the world of journalism to work full-time as a massage therapist.

“I remember getting a lot of what I call the ‘bad clam’ look,” says the 57-year-old of his old newspaper friends. “It’s like they have a bad clam in their mouth, but they’re trying not to look like they do. There were a lot of weak smiles and people going, ‘Isn’t that nice.’”

Truth is, Gordon had been practicing massage since 2000. He’d not only developed a growing client list but for several years had volunteered at Dartmouth–Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire, where he worked on patients who were undergoing rigorous cancer treatments. It was intense work, with many trying to face down fears about their illness, their prognosis, and their future. They were anxious, often in pain, and struggled to sleep. “But I could see how much they benefited from massage,” Gordon says. “At first some might push back a little, and maybe I’d end up doing nothing but a foot massage, but when I left, they were asleep.”

But the benefits went only so far. Many patients simply couldn’t afford to pay for massages after they’d been discharged from the hospital. And that sparked an idea. In June 2007, just a few months before he left his newspaper job, Gordon launched the Hand to Heart Project, a small nonprofit that offers free in-home massages to cancer patients living in the Upper Valley region of New Hampshire and Vermont.

The mechanics of the operation are simple: Gordon serves anyone with advanced cancer. That goes for the single mother living in affordable housing in Claremont, New Hampshire, to the wealthy senior in Woodstock, Vermont. Some need only infrequent massages; others, facing more complicated issues, require multiple visits per week. Since launching Hand to Heart, Gordon and his small crew of therapists, whom the nonprofit pays a modest amount for each visit, have worked on more than 200 cancer patients. Referrals come from hospitals, hospice programs, and others familiar with the program. “[Steve] just creates this wonderful connection,” says Donna St. Peter, a Wilder, Vermont, resident, whose late husband, Michael, received massages from Gordon over the last two years of his battle with lung cancer. She’s now a board member of Hand to Heart. “When I came home from work, I could tell Michael had gotten a massage, because his whole persona changed. He was hopeful, energetic—he just felt better.”

Like any good journalist, Gordon has collected stories from his profession: about the clients he’s worked with, the friendships he’s formed, the perspective he’s gained on life and death. And when he speaks about his work, there’s a reverence in his voice for the people he’s met as a result of his new career.

One of the clients he remembers with particular fondness was an older woman in Lebanon who was suffering from lung cancer. When Gordon met her last winter, she had only a few months to live, and she was severely shaken by her illness and what she was facing. As the weeks passed and the cancer sapped more of her strength, Gordon had to lift her up onto his table. During her last few days, he simply came to sit by her bed, placing his hands on her and letting her know he was there for her.

“She would lean into me, and hold my hand against her chest,” Gordon says. “I feel like every time I work with someone in that situation, I’m learning not just how I want to live, but how I want to die. When somebody approaches the end of their life with as much grace, openness, and love as she did, that’s a pretty amazing thing to experience.”

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Schoolbus driver Sharon Hutchins has spent much of her life improving the well-being of kids in her hometown of Andover, Maine.
Schoolbus driver Sharon Hutchins has spent much of her life improving the well-being of kids in her hometown of Andover, Maine.
Photo Credit : Joel Laino

The Good Neighbor
Sharon Hutchins

In small communities across New England, a little help goes a long way. In tiny Andover, Maine, Sharon Hutchins has had the kind of impact that would make a wealthy phil­anthropist envious. A native Mainer, mother of two, and a schoolbus driver for more than 30 years, Hutchins has poured much of her life into improving the well-being of the kids in her town.

In 1987 she spearheaded the resurrection of the Andover Education Fund, a college scholarship program for Andover seniors that had lain dormant for three decades. Under Hutchins’ direction, it launched a successful annual fall fund­raising campaign and earned its nonprofit status. Today, the fund provides $2,500 a year to each Andover resident attending a two- or four-year accredited college. In all, the organization annually hands out some $25,000 to $30,000 to help defray higher-education costs.

“I was raised to serve others,” says the 65-year-old Hutchins, the oldest of six, who owns a big, infectious laugh, which she shares often. “Coming from such a big family and the fact that five of us were born within seven years, we had to look out for one another.”

Hutchins is also one who likes to stay busy. Five years ago she accepted a challenge from her church to take a $20 bill and map out a way to make a difference in her community. Within weeks she and four others had started Hungry Kingdom, a school meals program that provides a free hot breakfast and lunch to every Andover elementary child throughout the school year. It costs $7,000 a year to run, and Hutchins says Andover residents have been more than happy to contribute to the cause.

“It began with us just wanting to see where we could make the most impact without having to raise a lot of money,” she says. “And everyone got involved. When you’re working with kids, people just dig deeper.” Hutchins is one of them.