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Community Garden Offers LES Homeless a Welcome Oasis

 The M'Finda Kalunga Community Garden has been an oasis for local homeless for three decades.
Bob Humber
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LOWER EAST SIDE — Bakaroy Camara's journey from outside the M'Finda Kalunga Community Garden to the oasis inside its fence began when he met head gardener Bob Humber.

"I introduced myself and after that I tell him, 'I'm home,'" said Camara, a 34-year-old homeless man who frequents Sara D. Roosevelt Park, near the community garden at Delancey and Chrystie streets.

Camara is one of the countless men and women that Humber, 76, a retired community educator with the Children's Aid Society, is helping to overcome demons — in part by putting them to work in M'Finda Kalunga.

"I ask them if they want to help me because that gives them a lot of value — to help," Humber said.

He and other community members worked to transform Sara D. Roosevelt Park in the 1980s from an overgrown park that had become a haven for drug use and crime into an urban gem.

"There was nothing in the park, just weeds," he told DNAinfo New York. "This was a park that people walked through very quickly."

"It's my life. It's who I am. This is what I do," added Humber, of his retirement days spent tending the garden and taking disenfranchised young people under his wing.

In the 1980s, basketball was a popular tool to involve the homeless teenagers and young adults who spent time in the park, Humber said. But not everyone was interested in basketball, so Humber, with no prior experience in gardening, began teaching visitors to grow plants.

"We turned the park around," he said of the work that also involved mentoring young people, referring them to nearby services and giving them clothes donated by neighborhood residents.

City Comptroller John Liu has also worked with Humber for many years and called him "the definition of a community activist."

"Bob Humber likes to say the M’Finda Kalunga Garden brings the community together," Liu said. "That is certainly true, but it wouldn’t be so if not for his unflinching persistence in weeding out the riff-raff, drug dealers, and trouble makers."

Humber, together with the Sara D. Roosevelt Park Community Coalition, formally founded the M'Finda Kalunga Community Garden in 1983 as a place for nearby residents to garden small plots of land. It now also offers programs for children and seniors, and continues to be seen as a place that assists the local homeless population.

Peter Kostmayer, chief executive officer of the Citizens Committee for New York City, which recognized Humber in granting him the Osborne Elliot Community Service Award in 2012, said young people come from all over the city to work in the garden.

"He has the ability to draw young people," said Kostmayer, who has known Humber for eight years. "Not just local young people, but from Brooklyn, Queens — all over."

"They traveled to the garden to work with him," he added.

The organization first gave Humber a grant of "a couple of hundred dollars" in 1975, according to Kostmayer, enabling his group to buy noise-makers — pots, pans, metal poles or whatever made a racket — to scatter drug dealers away from the park.  

Humber's work occasionally attracted a few other funding grants, but most of the good work was paid for by Humber and other local residents with another valuable asset — their time.

Since meeting the gardener three months ago, Bakaroy Camara has worked side-by-side with him most days, completing odd gardening jobs that include raking up leaves and putting plants in the soil.

"There were plants everywhere in our house growing up," said Camara, a Guinean immigrant who moved to the U.S. about 10 years ago with his wife. “This reminds me of back home."

He said his life began to unravel when he and his wife divorced and he lost his job working in a factory. He moved to New York City about six months ago, he said, but wound up on the streets.

"If you get down to the street you don't have any value," he said.

The garden work is helping to restore his sense of self-worth, he said, and keeps him busy as he continues to look for a job and eat his meals at the nearby Bowery Mission.

"You come to New York and it is too big, too much," he said.