Some 15 years ago, Brandon Menjares and Frank Souza spent most days in the wide-open field off of Temple Emanuel in Cary Square.
It was one of the few open green spaces in the neighborhood where they could play baseball, throw the football around or play capture.
It was a getaway, both said last week.
“That bush right there, that’s the place where I first got the wind knocked out of me big time when I got tackled playing football here,” said Menjares. “We played here every day, all the time. Everybody came here almost every day.”
Both, however, said they were surprised to come back a little over a week ago and found the lot unused and severely overgrown with weeds.
It didn’t stay that way very long.
That’s because both young men, now 20 and 22, had come back with about 20 other AmeriCorps YouthBuild members – under the blessing of the Temple – to turn the lot back into a neighborhood gem, including a passive park, more neighborhood garden space for Somalian refugees and a manicured open field.
“I grew up on Bloomingdale Street and this was such an important place for us to play, but when I came back the other day it was overgrown and no one was using it anymore,” Menjares said. “This is good for us to come back because we can bring it back and then maybe that will bring back the young people – give them a place like we had, but even better. Even though there are a lot of parks now, there are no wide open spaces like this.”
Added Souza, “This place was totally overgrown and we’re going to transform it into something you can use again. I grew up across the street from here. It was the only wide-open green space we had. If a lot of the guys weren’t here all the time playing sports, they would have probably gotten into drugs or worse.”
Members of YouthBuild – a division of Just-A-Start – are almost 80 percent Chelsea residents, said coordinators Sal Mancini and Robbie Sanders, and are in a program that allows them to get their high school diploma and earn money to use for high education. The non-profit has been striving to get more involved in Chelsea over the last couple of years, and seems to have struck gold in coming together with the Chelsea Collaborative on community service projects.
Roseann Bongiovanni of the Chelsea Collaborative said the project grew out of an outreach effort from the Temple, specifically Ellen Rovner and Marlene Demko.
“I am a member of the Temple and I just saw how underutilized this lot beside the Temple was and thought it should be used for something,” she said. “So, about five or six years ago I asked Roseann if we could put a community garden here. She wasn’t sure if it would fly and if it would be able to be maintained. However, she did tell us that the Somali Bantu refugees in Chelsea needed a place to meet and to garden.”
Said Bongiovanni, “The Bantu refugees needed a place to meet for Madrasa (an educational meeting in the Islamic faith) and because the Temple was unfortunately underutilized, we thought they could meet there. In the end, the decision was to have them start with a community garden and go from there.”
So, some two years ago, three garden plots were carved out of the open lot and began to be used for the Bantu garden project.
That was a modest success, but this summer that project and the entire open lot renovation really took off with the addition of Youth Build.
Now, the Bantu refugees will have three additional beds to plant in, which organizers said it a tremendous help.
“It’s very important for these refugees to be able to grow their own food because they’ve always been farmers and they have a problem here getting access to fresh foods,” said Aweis Hussein, a community organizer with the Collaborative. “Many of them depend upon food stamps and it’s not enough to support a family. To have them be able to grow their own food, that’s been great for them. They already knew how to farm, they just needed a place. Now, they will have double the space.”
Rovner said the Temple sees the project in its side yard as one group of older immigrants reaching out to those who are newer immigrants.
“This Temple is an older immigrant community and has been here 80 or 90 years,” she said. “It’s isolated in a way because most of the people around are newer immigrants. Those in the Temple are the children of immigrants who came here years ago. We felt that maybe we can bring them together. There’s a Hebrew saying of ‘Tikkum Olam,’ which means to repair the world. One way to do that is to build bridges, and we believe we’re doing that here this week.”