A serene place of redemption for Newark ex-offenders | Di Ionno

By Mark Di Ionno | The Star-Ledger
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on June 26, 2016

The simple pleasure of watering plants is not lost on Edwin Ortiz. The muddy-handed unraveling of the hose, the spray and smell of fresh water, the sound of it trickling off the healthy green leaves he is nurturing.

The density of the garden reduces the sound of traffic from Newark's busy Springfield Avenue to a whisper. The buzz of honey bees among the forest of plants can be heard over the whine of buses climbing out of the city's business district.

Ortiz, 48, is sequestered in what he calls "an oasis" – an overflowing Eden of decorative trees and plants, of vegetables and flowers, of dirt and sunlight, of simplicity and solace. Turn a corner and you are alone, hidden by the abundance of nature, with your work and thoughts.

It was not like this in prison. Not at Trenton, Rahway or Northern State, the places Ortiz spent the last 30 years of his life. Or even the Kintock Group half-way house in Newark, where he lives now to transition into the community.    

He was an 18-year-old drug addict when he shot and killed a man in an armed robbery in East Orange

"I was doing petty crime, but my drug use escalated and so did my crime," he said. "Someone lost their life."

To say Ortiz lost 30 years of his, too, would be cliché and disingenuous. He is alive, his victim is not. He has a second chance, his victim does not.

He, like the other men and women who were once incarcerated and now work at the Greater Newark Conservancy understand this. They have been given a chance to change.

"When you're in the DOC (Department of Corrections), you're surrounded by negativity," said Ortiz. "Here, you see things that are positive. You see things grow. You cultivate things that are good for the community, not detract from it."  

That is at the heart of the conservancy's mission, which is earthy and metaphorical. Nurture people like plants, grow a community like a garden. Fronted by the ornate former Oheb Shalom (Lovers of Peace) synagogue, the conservancy has education, job training and leadership programs for city youths, for the unemployed, for recovering addicts and ex-offenders.

It runs two city farms – one acre behind the historic Krueger-Scott Mansion and 2.5 acres next to the Hawthorne Elementary School, in the Upper Clinton Hill section.

Since 2009, it has run a program called "Clean & Green," which trains people for jobs in landscaping and horticulture by having them beautify the city's vacant lots and start community gardens.

This year, it began a company of its own, called City Bloom Landscaping. Tom Brill, who ran a successful company in Morris County, was hired to manage a crew of ex-offenders and secure contracts from homeowners and businesses.

"It's a 'social purpose' business," said Robin Dougherty, the conservancy executive director.

"One of the goals is to also teach 'soft' skills. We want them to see the level of professionalism it takes to successfully interface with potential clients and the public."

Teaching the hard skills – the how-to behind installing rock walls, laying down decorative pavers, and caring for lawns, trees and shrubs – falls to Brill.

"When I had my own company, I was more of a boss," he said. "My guys were highly skilled, and I'd drive around and check on jobs or I'd be out doing estimates."

But now, his guys have no landscaping skills and Brill is back to the hands-on work of teaching rudimentary life skills, such as showing up every day – and on time.

"We want guys who want to work and who want to learn," Brill said. "Sometimes, they have to re-do what they've done to make it right. We want guys who can accept that."

"This is a training program," Dougherty said. "We want to teach a higher standard, and we want people who want higher aspirations.

"Some will stay on with us as managers and some will be able to find jobs because they now have professional experience,'' she said. "Hopefully, some will start their own companies."

That's the goal of Akeem Jones, 28, who did five years at Northern State on weapons and drug dealing charges and has been out of jail for three.

"I knew things had to change when I started losing my friends," he said.

Three were shot and killed and "I was going the same way."

Then came a baby girl, Aniqse, now 3. Jones found whatever work he could, but sees City Bloom as a chance to start his own small business.

"This is something I can see myself doing," he said.

Malik Green, 37, is another former drug dealer, who first went to prison at 17. But has been out long enough to take the skills he learned from "Clean & Green" to another level and maybe start his own business.

"I have my own garden behind my house," he said. "I'm teaching the kids from the block. Something good comes out of it."

For Keith Williams, 50, the new company, too, is an extension of "Clean & Green," and he is in line to be one of Brill's supervisors.

Williams said he was tired of spending holidays in jail, away from his family.

"Seven times, I was away," he said.

In 2009, he was accepted by the conservancy and has been there ever since. In the past few months, he has added beekeeping to his skills.

"To me, it's all about the first chapter of Genesis," he said. "God created Earth, and working in the earth keeps me focused on life –  on the life ahead of me."

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