Maia Nehme, Contributing Photographer

Sunlight streamed in through stained-glass windows — etched with depictions of Jesus Christ, his disciples and the Virgin Mary — illuminating Marcus T. Harvin’s face as he laid out his plans for a revitalized Newhallville.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Harvin led the “YOU Have a Dream” event from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Pitts Chapel Unified Free Will Baptist Church, which introduced Newhallville fREshSTARTs to the neighborhood. The nonprofit is an “all-encompassing mechanism for the whole person” that will include an innovative food pantry, debate and arts education for youth and a financial literacy course for adults, according to Harvin, its founder and president.

“When I was in prison, I had several visions of what Newhallville could be if I offered my hands and heaven offered help,” Harvin, who is a licensed minister, said at the event. “While in my bed in that cell, in my head, I witnessed Bassett [St.] and Dixwell [Ave.] serving as beacons of Black business, akin to the boulevard we’ve given the moniker Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma.”

Harvin received a 14-year sentence in 2016 but was released in May 2022. While in prison, he befriended Babatunde Akinjobi, who was released after 22 years of incarceration in August 2023 and is now the director of community engagement for fREshSTARTs.

Akinjobi and Harvin quickly connected over their shared spirituality and their love for their communities, prompting them to begin brainstorming ideas for a food pantry. 

“Who’s this big-headed dude?” Akinjobi said at Monday’s event, recalling his thoughts the first time he met Harvin. “Every time I saw him, he had a book. But then I noticed that he had a Bible, too.”

During his years in prison, Harvin described feeling like an “anxious dog scratching at the door,” wanting to leave and begin his work on the food pantry. 

Upon his release, he continued his studies at the University of New Haven — which he had begun in 2021 through the joint UNH Prison Education Program and Yale Prison Education Initiative — and was awarded UNH’s President’s Public Service Fellowship. The fellowship provided Harvin with an internship at Neighborhood Housing Services, or NHS, in New Haven during the summer of 2023.

Food distribution features partnership with local college

Adam Rawlings, the community engagement specialist at NHS and the vice president of fREshSTARTs, met Harvin during his internship and began working with him to set his plans in motion. 

“Food can be a tool for building community,” Rawlings told the News. “It’s not only something that an individual needs to have energy to go about their day. It is something that can be an invitation to larger conversations around, ‘what else can we help you with? What’s happened to you where you might need some extra resources?’”

Rawlings’ main responsibilities include coordinating food collection and distribution, as well as organizing volunteers for fREshSTARTs’ youth and adult programming.

He is also focused on finding grants and funding opportunities for the nonprofit, particularly through his work with NHS. In October, Harvin and Rawlings attended the NeighborWorks Community Leadership Institute and received a $4,000 grant to use as seed funding for the food pantry, allowing them to purchase two freezers and pay for an electrician to set them up. 

When asked by the News how he plans to fund several ambitious projects, Harvin said that they were still seeking funding sources through a number of avenues, including individual donors and nonprofits. 

“Hopefully the money starts pouring in,” Harvin told the News. “I believe that provision follows vision, so I believe that those proceeds to make the visions a reality are going to be here soon.”

Derek Faulkner, a university assistant at Southern Connecticut State University’s office of sustainability, reached out to Harvin in December after reading a New Haven Independent article about fREshSTARTs. SCSU is the first university to partner with the nonprofit.

The University’s Food Recovery Network chapter, managed by SCSU junior Chris Kowalski, plans to deliver roughly 80 pounds of excess dining hall food to Pitts Chapel every Monday between 3 and 4 p.m. 

Bishop Darrell L. McClam, the pastor at Pitts Chapel, agreed to host fREshSTARTs’ food pantry at the church, citing a link between food insecurity and faith.

“We can’t even bring people to Christ until we deal with their physical situation,” McClam told the News. “Even He knew that He had to handle their physical body first before He [could] even deal with their mind and in the spirit and soul.” 

Starting on Feb. 2, SCSU’s excess food will be served from 5 to 7 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in Pitts Chapel’s fellowship hall. 

Dubbed the fREshstaurant, this service aims to provide food with “dignity,” rather than adopting a traditional soup kitchen model.

“Soup kitchen has a negative connotation that you’re going to walk down pretty much a human conveyor belt, and people are going to take a silver ladle and slap stuff on a tray,” Harvin told the News. “I know how it is to eat undignified. I was in prison for six years. You get passed food through the same trap [that] you get passed a toilet brush that has been used on the toilet next door. We’re not doing that for people.”

Plans include debate team, financial literacy class, community garden

At Monday’s event, the National Prison Debate League’s Assistant Director Brittany LaMarr introduced the FRESH Debate Program, which will be rolled out in early February. 

The 12-week course will teach students in grades 5-12 oratory skills and allow them to discuss policies that directly impact their community, according to LaMarr.

“We shouldn’t have to go to prison to be able to be given the skills and the tools that you need to be successful in life,” LaMarr, who is also formerly incarcerated, said.

Moreover, the program’s students will receive a stipend that is placed in a college savings account, per LaMarr.

Credit Repair and Money Management, a financial literacy class for adults taught by KeyBank’s Branch Manager Dwayne Hicks, will also begin in February. All courses will be taught in Pitts Chapel’s basement and in NHS’s learning lab, according to Harvin.

McClam said that he was inspired to host fREshSTARTs’ various courses at his church because he grew up with a learning disability.

“[I’ve gone] from a kid who is reading on a third grade level and graduating from high school, to achieve the things that I have done, the places that I have seen, the things that I have started,” he told the News. “Any time I can [spend] to help our community, I have to make our church available.”

In the next few months, Harvin aims to launch fREsh Farm, which will teach farming to neighborhood youth and adults. NHS will provide fREshSTARTs with plots of land for this program, according to Harvin, and Faulkner hopes it could also be held in SCSU’s community garden.

Another future project is the Make Shop, a space where fifth- to eighth-grade students can “exercise their creativity.” Akinjobi will lead the Make Shop.

“A lot of times, these kids are running around with empty hands,” he told the News. “We figured if we put tools in them, they’ll start to explore, as opposed to getting into mischief with whatever else they can pick up.” 

Akinjobi noted that when he was younger, he rejected the guidance of adults in his life because they didn’t have any shared experiences.

But he thinks that he’ll be able to help Newhallville’s youth because of his shared background.

“Where you think you’re going, I’ve been,” he told the News. “I’m going to invest in all of this: myself, time, whatever is necessary to make sure that … somebody cares enough about you to see you become [something] more … You don’t have to be a basketball player, you don’t have to be a rapper, you don’t have to be the neighborhood drug dealer.”

Once the guest speakers’ portion of Monday’s event concluded, Harvin invited attendees to head downstairs to Pitts Chapel’s fellowship hall to discuss the proposed programming over pizza. 

Afterwards, fREshSTARTs’ leaders distributed flip charts, on which attendees were encouraged to jot down anything that they and their community needed to become the “best version” of themselves. Harvin promised that these charts would serve as the inspiration for fREshSTARTs’ future Oasis Center, a building he hopes to construct in the future to host the aforementioned programs and services.

“When we secure the funds to get this project done, to get this building built … I’m going to take that paper, I’m going to give it to an architect and I’m going to say, ‘make this happen,’” he said.

Pitts Chapel Unified Free Will Baptist Church is located at 64 Brewster St.

Maia Nehme covers housing and homelessness and Latine communities for the News. Originally from Washington, D.C., she is a first-year in Benjamin Franklin College majoring in history.