Planting roots in the North End

Mikel Kelsie grew up in North End Halifax and wants to give back to his community. Photo: Jennifer Taplin

Lugging an enormous paper bag laden with carrots, onions, apples, and potatoes, Mikel Kelsie knocks on another door in Uniacke Square but there’s no answer.
It’s mid-morning on a Saturday and usually more people are home this time of day but many of them are at a funeral. A 25-year-old with a bright smile killed himself.
“Always there’s going to be pain and tragedy but you can’t always be living in it,” says Debra Paris Perry a community icon who is helping Kelsie and a group of Saint Mary’s University students deliver vegetables around the square. (See “Baring her soul” by Suzanne Rent in the November 2016 Halifax Magazine).
She stops and hugs a young man with a t-shirt displaying a memorial photo of the young man who took his own life. They say he was a good kid and it’s an absolute tragedy. Up the street, she points to a fenced-in back yard. There was a shooting there last year. She recalls when a kid was shot in the hand and lost a finger.
“But today is a happy day,” she says.
This November morning is the start of a whole new business venture for Kelsie and his friend and business partner Cortrell Thomas. Their business is called Square Roots. For $20 a month, households in Uniacke Square will get bi-weekly deliveries of root vegetables from a company in the Annapolis Valley. Today, along with SMU students, they’re handing out bags of free vegetables in hopes of signing up customers.
Square Roots is their second business idea and they have big, big plans.
Thomas grew up in East Preston and got in a lot of trouble as a kid. “I was in gangs and I dealt with drugs and I was in trouble with the law and I didn’t respect the law either,” he said. “When I had my first son I realized you can’t always rely on the streets, you’ve got to do something productive and positive.”
Telling his story, Thomas pulls up his sleeve and shows the names of loved ones tattooed on his arm in a rolling font. “I lost a lot of close family members that I had close to me,” he says. “It hits me, right?”
But it was having kids that was pivotal for Thomas. “I don’t want to be like [my father],” he says. “I want to be there for my kids from day one until I die.” He didn’t want his kids growing up with a dad who was in jail or dead. He calls himself a mama’s boy because he has mad respect and love for his mom who worked three jobs.
Thomas believes it doesn’t matter where you raise your kids—it matters how you raise them. “My kids made a big difference for me, they made me want to turn my life around,” Thomas says.
Inside the gym at the George Dixon Centre, home of the launch of Square Roots, Thomas’ three-month-old baby is sound asleep in the carrier oblivious to the commotion. Kalaysha, 5, and Trevondre, 6, think the space beneath the tables laden with vegetables is just the best playground.
“It’s like it opened my heart when I had kids and it opened my eyes,” Thomas says.
Kelsie grew up in this neighbourhood and like Thomas, got into plenty of trouble. He dropped out of high school but more recently went back and got his diploma.
Like Thomas, kids had a lot to do with his turnaround—just not his kids. “What really did it for me was my sister having kids, so my nephews really changed me,” he says. “I wanted to set an example for my nephews.”
They signed up for a program called OPtions (“OP” stands for overcoming poverty) because it promised them money. It’s a federally-funding program run by SMU’s business-development centre for 18 to 30 year olds who have trouble finding jobs. SMU students who are in Enactus, a volunteer group that focuses on social entrepreneurship, are paired with participants to help them build skills and find employment. During the program Thomas and Kelsie thought up IEA Creations, a venture that sells bracelets to support mental health.
A group of 10 participants recently graduated from the program and eight have jobs: Kelsie and Thomas want to run Square Roots instead of working for someone else.
“Growing up I wanted to run my own business but this program showed us another side of business which is social enterprise,” Kelsie says. “It’s not just a year-to-year benefit, but helping others.”
He has ideas on expanding Square Roots into turkey drives and exploring turning food waste into biofuel. “I know moving forward I definitely want to see more ideas come to life,” Kelsie says.
Thomas sees a Square Roots branding opportunity and perhaps a link with the Hope Blooms kids. He calls the neighbourhood a “food desert.” Fresh produce is expensive and people don’t have transportation to go shopping. “I like to help out the community because the community is going through a rough patch right now with a lot of murders. Any way you can bring the community together, unity, this is the best way I think.”
Chris Clayton was chatting with a friend on Creighton Street when he was handed a bag of veggies from the Square Roots team. “You guys are doing big things guys, loving it,” he told the group who waved back as they tugged a kid’s red wagon filled with paper bags down the street.
“Anything positive will just grow into something more positive,” Clayton said in an interview. “We buy vegetables but we don’t have a lot because being on a fixed income and stuff it’s hard if you buy it all at once, it’s going to go bad.”
Kennedy MacKeen was pleasantly surprised when she opened her door Saturday morning and was handed a bag. She shares the house with five roommates and they make communal meals so the extra produce will come in very handy. “I just love the idea of fresh vegetables in the middle of the winter coming to my house,” she says. “This seems really cool.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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