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East-side KCMO businesses receive grants to provide fresh produce, security for community

Ophelia's Blue Vine
Posted at 6:48 PM, Mar 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-29 20:04:27-04

Two businesses located in east Kansas City, Missouri — Ophelia's Blue Vine and Black Hawk Security and Neighborhood Watch — recently received $25,000 grants that will help them address key issues in their community: fresh produce and safety.

"We brought life back to the soil," Mike Rollen, who started Ophelia's Blue Vine as an urban farm in honor of his grandmother, said.

Rollen turned once-contaminated dirt into healthy soil on a plot of land near East 24th Terrrace and Vine Street.

It's one of several vacant lots he's bought or rented several to grow produce.

Fittingly, on the Vine Street property, which he bought from the Land Bank of KCMO five years ago, Rollen grows eight herbs in dirt that previously was contaminated and deemed brownfield land by the EPA due to likely pollution or soil contamination from previous industrial or commercial use.

It cost $30,000 to test and purify the soil during the last several years. The city gave Rollen a grant to help out, but remediation came out of pocket.

"I couldn't let the people down, so it was whatever it took," Rollen said. "And it's been a struggle to get water, to get electricity, to build up the infrastructure. Had a lot of 'no's' but we kept pushing forward."

KCMO's east side has long been a place where fresh produce is hard to find.

Rollen said he knew he could do better than the herbs he saw in grocery stores, which come from out of town. Now, people can pre-order their herbs online and pick them up at the greenhouse or Rollen will even deliver them.

"I started urban farming seven years ago because I wanted my boys to know what real food tasted like," Rollen said.

The revitalization of the properties he utilizes serves as a metaphor for the change he wants to see on KCMO's east side .

Ophelia's Blue Vine received its grant from from the Generating Income For Tomorrow, program, or GIFT, a Kansas City-based nonprofit that provides help to promising Black-owned businesses on the East Side.

RELATED | GIFT report shows Black-owned businesses can succeed, face historic challenges

The money will help Rollen get a better stove to keep the greenhouse warm year-round.

The stove, which will run on corn, wood chips and other biofuel, also will help Rollen crank out more crops. Additional funding will be used to buy some storage sheds, which he plans to decorate with community murals.

"It was an honor to get that money," Rollen said. "It makes me know that the community, especially the Black community, believes in me. So, that's why we're just pushing so hard to get out and feed more people."

Brandon Calloway, executive director of GIFT, said Ophelia's Blue Vine and Black Hawk Security and Neighborhood Watch are the embodiment of what the nonprofit's mission.

"Not only are we creating jobs and helping these businesses grow so we can close the racial wealth gap, but we're having a huge impact on the social factors that also keep communities of color suppressed," Calloway said.

Black Hawk Security is a team of trained security officers commissioned through the KCPD.

"We've seen that individuals of color, they don't trust law enforcement, so we wanted to give them another option," Omari Tatum, Black Hawk's chief of security operations, said.

They take pride in the fact that their officers look like the people in the neighborhoods where they serve, because they are from the community.

Black Hawk branched out from 100Kings, an organization of neighbors who planned outreach events and mentored young people.

The grant allowed Black Hawk to hire on three more officers, giving them a total of five. It also allowed them to buy more brochures with a list of provided services to hand out to people experiencing homelessness.

The officers provide security for businesses and events, respond to neighborhood disturbances, and will eventually start contracting with homeowners associations for residential security.

"Another thing that GIFT has enabled us to do is get more hands-off training and de-escalation training," Tatum said. "We never want to use our weapons. We never want to pass anyone over to KCPD."

Now, GIFT is launching a fundraising campaign, "I Got 5 on It," to give five more businesses $5,000 grants. To donate, you can text "GOT5" to 44321.