“It was like getting back a new life. It was like a new urge of sensitivity, but also appreciation for nature and the process,” said Rollie Hernandez of coming to the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger’s Urban Garden.
Nearly ten years ago, Mr. Hernandez was diagnosed with prostate cancer. After immigrating from Trinidad as a young adult, he attended three different colleges but failed to graduate. He married and had a series of odd jobs from caregiver to martial arts instructor throughout his life. In his mid-fifties at the time of his diagnosis, Mr. Hernandez was already suffering from depression, divorced, and lived alone in a three-quarter house. He was essentially unemployed and visited the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger as a food pantry client.
“A critical disease really hits you, believe me. You completely change… It crushed me a little bit,” he recalled of his diagnosis. “I was like in limbo, just almost surviving day-to-day with no real objective.”
But one day, he noticed a poster for a program geared towards senior citizens at the BSCAH office — a program now known as Health 360. The series of weekly classes aims to inform the elderly about healthy eating, the importance of locally-sourced produce and the roots of common ailments like diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and obesity.
“Every Friday, I wake up, and I go to school and have to do my homework…in terms of doing stuff that’s better for my health,” he said. Though it was difficult at first to implement the lessons in his daily life, Mr. Hernandez gradually became more conscious of his eating and exercise habits. He started reading extensively about developing a healthy lifestyle, from Jethro Kloss’s Back to Eden, to Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird’s The Secret Life of Plants, to studies by the American Medical Association.
After successfully completing Health 360 (not once, but three times), he started working in the BSCAH Urban Garden — though his first task was to pick weeds out of the plant beds, he now works at all three gardens in Bed-Stuy and the garden in Far Rockaway.
The garden has helped him relieve stress and learn responsibility — “I have to take care of the garden and I have to take care of the chickens,” he said. “Chickens, you know, are like little kids… I have to feed them. I don’t want to let them suffer — it’s like a little baby.”
Mr. Hernandez now avidly practices and teaches Tai Chi and works in the BSCAH garden five times a week — “sometimes I come on Saturdays. Or maybe Sundays if I feel it needs a bit more… I’m attached to it now.”
His cancer is in remission, his blood pressure has been reduced and his depression is under control. “I exercise now more than ever,” he added.
He has also had the opportunity to take what he has learned back into the community, as a committee member of a collegiate program at the Foundation for a Better Life and a health advocate at Neighbors Together. He is also part of an advocacy group at the Department of Mental Hygiene that arranges HIV testing and informs the public about obesity and cancer.