The first time Troy Rush Jr. was shot, in December 2020, he instinctively ran toward a safe haven for him and other youth in Carrollton Ridge, one of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods.
The Food Project was established in 2017 as a place to offer meals to the community and teach youth culinary skills, but it has grown into much more. There, Rush made friends while learning how to be independent, and was working on business plans he hoped would lift him and his family out of the neighborhood.
So, with a bullet wound to the chest, the 18-year-old trudged as far as his feet could carry him before collapsing in the nonprofit group’s parking lot. Food Project Director Michelle Suazo rushed over from handing out produce to hold his hand and call for help.
Rush survived that day. But months later, in July, he was shot again, this time fatally, outside a convenience store while making his way into work at the Food Project.
Ask any of the youth at the Food Project about Rush’s death and they hang their heads, lower their voices. For the close-knit program, the event shook their collective resolve.
“It hit different,” said Demonte Palmer, 25.
But they have been rededicating their efforts in recent months, in his name. The Food Project is expanding into a formerly vacant building across the street. Owned by an adjacent church, it was falling apart. Now, the building is being renovated to serve as a restaurant and business incubator, starting with a soft opening in a few weeks. The youth are designing the menu with help from professional chefs, and they will sell food products and clothing they make.
“People like us, myself, we can be role models,” said Tyree Johnson, 19. “I was once out there, but I don’t need to be out there.”
Suazo is excited for the project’s future, but said she stays awake at night wondering what she could do with more funding. Every time there is a tragedy in the community — and they are unfortunately frequent — she sees a surge in demand, a surge she can’t meet.
“We have the reputation of, ‘This is where you can come,’” Suazo said. “When Troy was murdered, I went from 18 kids wanting to work to 44 kids and family members in this community wanting a job. I did not have a budget for that.
“We cannot fight this battle by ourselves,” she said. “We need support.”
‘Got to get out’
Dion Dorsey Jr., 18, stands on a chair inside the new space, writing on the wall with a magic marker. The day before, he projected the lyrics to a rap song by Johnson and traced them. Now he is shading in the letters along with two other people, instructing them so they get it just right.
“I got to get it/I got to get out,” the lyrics say.
Carrollton Ridge is in one of the poorest areas in the city, located in an area with a median income of $27,180. The number of vacant and burned-out homes is overwhelming. There have been at least 30 homicides over the past two years in Carrollton Ridge — the most of any city neighborhood — and more than 40 nonfatal shootings.
Dorsey, who grew up not far away, said he’s always been motivated to work, holding as many jobs as he can handle. His knuckles are scarred from being cut by rose thorns when he worked in a flower shop. He’s had a job at Carroll Park Golf Course for five years. He got a carpentry certification last year when he graduated from Carver Vocational-Technical High School.
He remembers eyeing a gumball machine at a barbershop and thinking that he wanted to run a vending machine company. With the Food Project’s help, he acquired a couple of vending machines, one of which he’s placed at a store on West North Avenue and stocks with healthy products.
The machines also sell a drink he created at the Food Project that he’s brought others in to help on, including Rush before he was killed.
“I have dreams and my goals that I want to accomplish,” Dorsey said.
But challenges always seem to be lurking. Late last year, his mother was diagnosed with late-stage cancer. She is receiving treatment. Then, on New Year’s Eve, Dorsey was hanging out with friends in the Edmondson Village area. After the clock struck midnight, he went home. He woke up the next morning to find out two friends he had been hanging out with were gunned down and killed.
“Totally crazy, man,” Dorsey said.
The Food Project
Suazo is a graphic designer who lives in Ellicott City. Johnson said he remembers Suazo driving around the community handing out food seven years ago.
“Who is this lady? Is she crazy?” he said people wondered.
She started the Food Project as a side effort but has focused almost exclusively on it in recent years. It has an annual budget of about $140,000, enough to support about 13 youths and three parents.
The challenge is immense, because the needs are so big.
For example, Suazo said, while she’s been successful in finding temporary jobs for area kids, it’s not without challenges. They often need transportation and proper attire. Some don’t have identification, which means tracking down birth certificates and other documents. And even when employers decide they want to bring the youth on full-time, they often fail background checks.
In 2020, the city moved to evict her from her space in the Samuel F.B. Morse Recreation Center, a decision that was later rescinded. She said she’s twice applied for funding after Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott said he would allocate $50 million from the American Rescue Plan Act towards violence prevention. Suazo said her program was denied, with the city saying it doesn’t meet the requirements of a violence prevention program.
“At the end of the day, if we really want solutions, there are solutions,” Suazo said. “These kids want to do something else.”
In a recent distribution of $17 million from the fund, almost $13 million went to the state prison system for reentry programs, nearly $2.2 million went to two organizations that work with victims of sexual assault and $1.6 million went to organizations that do work in the field of “trauma-informed care.”
Shantay Jackson, director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, said she’s “hyper-aware” of the Food Project’s good works. As a youth she lived for a time in Carrollton Ridge, and she said she has volunteered with the program.
While Jackson maintains that the Food Project’s description as a “community healing” program doesn’t qualify for funds from her office, she recently connected Suazo with the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development. It’s planning to make the Food Project site a “jobs hub,” sending a city staffer to help connect people with employment.
Devin Green is a tragic example of what can happen when needs aren’t met.
In 2016, he was one of two teens who beat up and carjacked Democratic City Councilwoman Rikki Spector. At a court hearing for the teens, Spector met Suazo and agreed to help her with the boys. She helped Suazo get the rec center as a home for her program, where Green stayed involved. He left the area for a while; the reason is not clear.
In early August, he returned to The Food Project, seeking a full-time role. His mother was sick and they were struggling with housing. It wasn’t in Suazo’s budget, but she was able to get him a one-off job selling concessions at a professional soccer game.
Two weeks later, police say, Green was among a group of people who pulled guns on a man outside a dollar store in a robbery. The target, Colin Perry, pulled out a gun of his own and shot Green. Police said Green returned fire and killed Perry. A customer in the store was wounded by a stray bullet. Green turned 18 years old in a jail cell and is awaiting trial.
In November, Suazo accompanied another one of her youths to a federal courtroom. He had gotten into trouble before coming to the Food Project, dealing drugs for a crew targeted by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. With his sentencing delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, he started going to the Food Project, where he found structure and motivation.
The youth’s mother told U.S. District Judge George L. Russell III that her son would get up at “5:00, 6:00 in the morning waiting for them to come get him. I’m like, ‘They coming. It’s not open yet.’”
“So, he’s just so excited just to go. And so, it really made me feel like it was something positive going on there.”
Russell praised the Food Project’s work with the youth as “remarkable,” the result of having people who believed in him.
“I wish we had 200 of you,” the judge told Suazo. “Because I guarantee you, if we had 200 people like you, that would make an enormous change. I implore you, don’t stop. You are an unsung hero in Baltimore and I appreciate that.”
Grinding and hoping
Besides the physical space at the rec center, Spector provided another boost: The recipe for a snack called “Seedy Nutty” that youth at the Food Project cook, package and sell.
Palmer has taken the lead role in handling the product, tweaking the recipe to make it vegan and extend its shelf life. Suazo got Seedy Nutty into local Whole Foods stores.
Palmer has even bigger plans — he says the sky is the limit.
“My dream is to get Seedy Nutty on airplanes,” he said. “You know they serve nuts? Why not Seedy Nutty? I’m like, why not? I don’t know how to do that, so that’s what I’m working on now.”
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Palmer was 12 years old when his 15-year-old brother was killed.
“From that moment forward, my life was different,” he says. “I had to graduate high school. I just had to do it. No one in my family really did it, graduate high school. You don’t get a second chance at life.”
Suazo said the older youth are moving out of the area.
“Out of the city, man,” Dorsey interjected. “I’m the next guy up.”
Dorsey said he doesn’t want to abandon his city. He just wants to feel safe. He mentions a time he almost lost his life while going to get a lemonade, then says he doesn’t want to talk about it.
“I’m still gonna come around here and create change,” he said. “I just want to find peace.”
A banner hangs in the interior of the building where Dorsey and others are working to open the Food Project’s restaurant and business incubator: “Grinding 2x as hard in honor of Troy J. Rush Jr.”