Charger Launches Nonprofit Following ‘Transformative’ Service Experience
As a member of the University’s President’s Public Service Fellowship, Marcus T. Harvin ’23 A.S., ’25 connected with and served his community. His experience inspired him to found fREshSTARTs, a nonprofit that he envisions providing similarly meaningful experiences to his friends, neighbors, and, even, his fellow Chargers.
January 19, 2024
By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
Marcus T. Harvin ’23 A.S., ’25 stood in the neighborhood of Newhallville in New Haven, his hands covered with dirt as he spent his day gardening – something he’d often done as a kid growing up in this very neighborhood. It was the summer of 2023, and he was there now as a Charger and as a member of the University’s President’s Public Service Fellowship. The experience connected his past and his present, bringing him full circle. It also launched what would be his future.
It was a memorable year for Harvin – he’d graduated as part of the inaugural class of the University's Prison Education Program and Yale Prison Education Initiative (YPEI) in the spring, and he was part of the University’s President’s Public Service Fellowship over the summer, where he worked with Neighborhood Housing Services. Now, clad in his beloved Air Jordans, Harvin was immediately recognizable to his friends and neighbors in Newhallville who stopped to greet him as he helped to beautify their neighborhood.
For Harvin, the fellowship was far more than a program. It was, he says, “transformative; an experience.” Gardening on these familiar grounds brought him back to his past – his paternal grandmother had been passionate about gardening – and it nurtured his own growth while deepening his roots in his community.
“It helped me to discover something about myself that I didn’t know – that my hands worked to be able to make things better,” he said. “I knew my head did, but I didn’t know my hands did. If man was raised from the dirt, this would be the dirt I came from in Newhallville. Now I’m reforming it. That’s a great thing for someone coming out of prison to say.”
‘Let’s clean it up’
While he was glad to see his familiar neighborhood and community during his time in the Fellowship, Harvin also saw something on the playground of nearby Lincoln-Bassett Community School – his former elementary school – that bothered him. He describes seeing “everything but children” – including trash that had clearly been left behind by adults, such as empty containers of alcohol. He also found something a child had left behind: a reading log that was still a blank page.
Endeavoring to lead by example, Harvin walked over to the playground in his Air Jordans and began to clean up the garbage. Because the refuse that adults had clearly left behind in a place for kids bothered him so much, he resolved to be the adult who would do something about it.
“We’re talking about a community plagued by emptiness,” Harvin explained. “There’s an empty beer bottle and an empty nip bottle, and next to that nip bottle is an empty reading log. If that reading log wasn’t empty, those beer and nip bottles would be full and on the counters and in the freezers. They wouldn’t be on the ground. I thought, let’s clean it up and give these kids something as aesthetically beautiful as they are internally beautiful.”
‘Make people aware of their excellence’
Harvin was feeling inspired to serve his community – something he’d done while in prison. He had started a Bible study, and instead of tithing to a church, the members gave to a shared fund. If someone they knew needed something, they’d take from the fund to help them. The group also offered support and encouragement to its members.
As a President’s Public Service Fellow and a Charger, Harvin was moved to continue to serve. After completing the Fellowship, Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS) brought him on as an independent contractor for several months, even enabling him to attend a leadership event in California this past fall.
Harvin says his experience as a Fellow led to fREshSTARTs, the organization he is now leading. Its goal is to be anything anybody needs to become everything they want to be – “your supplement to success,” as its tagline states.
“A supplement only adds to – it doesn’t give you what you need,” he explains. “It enhances what you already have. We want to make people aware of their excellence and give them something to enhance their excellence so that the world recognizes it.”
‘Marcus’s passion and dedication’
Harvin is now collaborating with two of his fellow Chargers who helped to supplement his own excellence – mentors who have now become trusted friends. Ric Baker, Ed.D., senior associate dean of students who also oversees the President’s Public Service Fellowship; and Bradley Woodworth, Ph.D., Harvin’s former history professor. Both are now members of the organization’s board. Harvin says they’ve been great resources, and he’s immensely grateful for their support.
“Marcus is blessed with an amazing drive to find ways to open up new opportunities for growth and development for people whom he senses others may have overlooked,” said Dr. Woodworth. “He deeply values the people of New Haven among whom he grew up and is working both to bring immediate improvements to their everyday lives and to show them the way forward in doing and accomplishing more. I am deeply moved that Marcus has included me in his work in fREshSTARTs. I can just try to follow the inspiring path he is setting in New Haven, a town I love.”
“It was incredible to watch Marcus’s passion and dedication to the program grow over the summer, which has unleashed his leadership well beyond the program itself,” added Dr. Baker. “I am thrilled to be a part of assisting the Newhallville fREshSTARTs program and look forward to the positive improvement it will make in people’s lives.”
The organization is already making a difference in the community. Harvin has been working with community leaders to create a food pantry, sourced through Connecticut Foodshare. With the support of a grant, they recently purchased two freezers, which were installed in a neighborhood church.
Hungry to launch the program as soon as possible and to find a variety of ways to provide food to the community, Harvin also helped create an initiative called Food Rescue. The organization is asking local colleges and universities to donate unused food instead of throwing it away so that they can create a “feast for the forgotten.” Starting next month, the organization will offer food to the community at a local church – and give them containers of food to take home. Harvin has already enlisted the support of several local institutions, including the University of New Haven.
“We’re not going to wait,” said Harvin. “The people are hungry now. I’ve learned that trash cans and trash bags don’t have appetites, but people do.”
‘The most beautiful way to be educated’
When it comes to the work of fREshSTARTs, the pantry is but one piece of the pie, as the organization has a variety of programs and initiatives in the works. In collaboration with the National Prison Debate League, the organization is developing a debate program for New Haven kids in grades 5-12 that will teach them how to debate, as well as foster the development of civic leadership skills. Harvin is also excited to share his passion for gardening with kids through a unique urban farming program that a University of Connecticut professor will lead.
The myriad educational programs will also enable kids to learn about broadcasting, including podcasting and radio, as well as how to create a clothing line. A planned makers program will teach kids how to create with materials such as wood and metal.
Harvin is especially excited to develop a music education program that will be a collaborative, creative, and hands-on experience. It will include his brother, a popular rapper known as Bugatti203, who will teach kids about song structures. Whether they aspire to sing or rap, kids will create their own songs with the support of coaches and performers. Harvin envisions the program culminating with a performance on the New Haven Green.
“YPEI provides a liberal arts education – the most beautiful way to be educated in my mind,” said Harvin. “I wanted to bring a liberal arts education to kids before they get to college. Let’s expose them to everything.”
‘I got a fresh start in life’
The organization is already fostering a sense of connection and support in the community. NHS and fREshSTARTs invited the public to Newhallville to share their dreams as part of a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day “YOU Have a Dream” event. It was a meaningful way for the community to learn more about what fREshSTARTs could offer them, celebrate a great leader, and rally around the power of a dream.
The event was also a fitting way for Harvin to celebrate the legacy of Dr. King – someone who, along with his grandmother, he considers to be his biggest role model. The program was held at Pitts Chapel UFWB Church in Newhallville, where Harvin also serves as a minister.
“I embody everything that all of this is about,” said Harvin. “The University and the President’s Public Service Fellowship gave me a restart. I started over, I got a fresh start in life with multiple felonies on my record. The University, Dr. Woodworth, and Dr. Baker don’t look at me like that. Let’s come together and show people to never allow other people to look at them like that. Never allow them to look at themselves like that.”
‘It transformed my reality’
In returning to Newhallville, Harvin has come full circle, reconnecting with his past as he serves his community and builds his future. It’s a future that looks bright, as he dedicates himself to his service, his studies, and starting afresh. In addition to starting a nonprofit, he’s on his way to becoming a homeowner through NHS. He’s looking forward to bringing his children – including the new baby he’s excited to meet in the near future – into his new home.
Harvin is grateful for the President’s Public Service Fellowship for bringing him back to where he started, and he hopes that one day, he’ll come full circle yet again, welcoming future Chargers to serve the organization that his own service helped to launch.
“The Fellowship changed me, my life, and my perspective,” he said. “It added skills to my repertoire. It transformed my reality, and I’m now able to serve. My organization may become a destination for the Fellowship, and the University will send students to a former student to serve the community.”