New City Neighbors doing even more justice by youth

For New City Neighbors, like the old cliché says, when God closed the window, they opened a door.

“The door was wide-open, and it was a double door,” says Ricardo Tavarez, New City Farm executive director.

That door is opening to the public 2 p.m. Friday May 20 when New City Neighbors hosts an open house at its newly renovated farmhouse on one acre at 1115 Leonard St. NE in the Creston neighborhood. The new location will allow New City Neighbors to offer more youth programming and additional youth clubs, expand its community café and grow more food. Plans are also in the works for cooking classes and a supper club serving different cultural meals, where community members can discuss social justice topics.

“The farmhouse opens up a higher level of programming that we haven't been able to fully explore before,” Tavarez says. “Everything that we sell in our farm share program and in the Café, that money turns around and provides wages for the youth for work that they do on the farm and in the café and supports the leadership curriculum, field trips and any guest speakers that we bring in. It all helps fund the youth programming.”

Miracles aside, the move truly has been a labor of community love and generosity. A community-supported agriculture (CSA) shareholder told Tavarez about the farmhouse that had come up for sale. A couple that had been longtime supporters donated $100,000 to help purchase it. A Grand Rapids Community Foundation grant helped pay for renovations. Support from community members and new partnerships with Mars Hill Bible Church and Mayflower Congregational Church kept momentum going. And a collaboration with Grand Valley State University provides additional farm acreage in Allendale where New City Farm can grow even more fresh vegetables for Creston neighborhood food pantries, families, and CSA shareholders.

“We've been extremely blessed to see people step up in new ways,” Tavarez says. “As far as our staff, it’s really their dedication that’s keeping this operation running. It’s what they believe in, what they are passionate about. I am just grateful for the opportunity to lead and connect with a community that wants to see this operation grow into its full potential.”

Built in 1859, the farmhouse now offers a commercial kitchen, cafe, one office and restrooms on the first floor. Upstairs, offices, a staff kitchen and bathroom and youth programming complete the space. The one-acre farm is right behind the house. Two of the three barns are used for storage, the other will be converted to open seating for the Café. A wood-fired pizza oven that’s double the size of the previous one will reduce waits for Café customers.

New City Neighbors employs youth on the farm, in the kitchen and at the Café. They start at $10.50 an hour and receive raises each year they return.

“Ultimately, this is about community development through empowering youth,” Tavarez says. “We want to see our young people step into leadership in our community through everything from volunteering to serving in the boardroom and being executive directors and entrepreneurs. Our work of social justice is empowering youth.”

Founded in 2007 at Fourth Reformed Church, New City Neighbors encountered an unexpected obstacle when Tavarez, a Calvin Seminary graduate and gay minister, came on board as executive director in 2020. Citing theological differences including New City Neighbors’ inclusive stance toward the LGBTQ community, the church cut ties with the nonprofit in the midst of the pandemic. Tavarez is happy to be free from constraints as New City Neighbors pursues what he calls a holistic approach to youth ministry.

“Radical hospitality, food justice, environmental sustainability, fighting for equal rights — including, certainly, LGBTQ rights — being anti-racist and providing equitable opportunities for everyone involved, all of these things need to work together to transform a community,” Tavarez concludes. “All these things need to work together.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy New City Neighbors
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