Updated: Jun 30, 2022
Mark Kearney’s Bio
Mark Kearney, known as “Solomon” at Newark, New Jersey’s largest urban farm “City Bloom”, has been managing this three-acre intensive vegetable farm since 2019. A Mandingo warrior, Mark has a doctorate degree in life experience. Formerly incarcerated and homeless, Mark has overcome incredible social and emotional challenges and thus can relate to just about anyone. Mark continues to harness the power of the farm to transform not only his life, but also the lives of hundreds of individuals, including those reentering society. Those who come to the farm are his “farmily”. He IS the farm. Many who have worked alongside him planting, cultivating, and harvesting vegetables are now university graduates, business owners, and community leaders. Mark has sown the seeds of life skills, caring, and connection that have helped many to break out of the cycle of intergenerational poverty.
Mark Kearney’s Transformational Journey
Born in Lakewood, New Jersey, fourth child of seven, Mark Kearney was born to loving parents. As a young child, he remembers picking corn, cherries, apples and with his mother. In order to make new house payments, his dad worked at a restaurant and his mom worked two jobs. Although he always felt blessed even with the hand-me-downs, he got lost in the shuffle. At ten years old, knowing he wasn’t welcome anymore, he moved into the home of his friend. Realizing his struggle with reading, he resolved to work hard to make up the difference. Mr. Brady, Scoutmaster of Troop 80, made a positive impression on him during his early teenage years as the kids he was hanging out with were not a good influence. Over those years, he also worked with his dad at a restaurant. However, in tenth grade, he decided to drop out of high school in favor of working.
Crushed by Life
The military seemed to offer a path for him to become someone of character. In 1981,Mark joined the Army National Guard and served for a year at Fort Benning, Georgia. Sergeant Prader was his boot camp leader for three-months. He and Sergeant Jeffco, both Vietnam veterans, pushed him to his limit, yet in a caring way. Mark recounts how strong that made him physically and mentally.
In April 1987, Mark got married to his sweetheart. He worked long hours to provide for his wife and their newborn children. Yet, in 1996, he found that his wife had not been faithful. She did not want to live with him any more. Suffering the pains of divorce, he thought by taking away his life, he would not be a burden on anyone. Having filled his car with gas at a gas station and lighting it on fire with him inside, he expected the end would come soon. He was ready to leave the Earth. He was surprised to see the police pounding on his door ordering him to get out of the locked car. He did not want to. Finally, he agreed, and they saved him from the roaring inferno.
Handcuffed in the police car, Mark was taken to the Ocean County Jail. He stayed there for six months based on the charge of arson. Charged with felony, he should have gone to Trenton, but the judge kept telling me, “You don’t belong here.” Mark kept pleading, “I’m guilty.” He didn’t want to live. He was at a place of such brokenness and utter loneliness. The only comfort he could find is that by leaving this Earth he would not be a burden to anyone. This pattern went on for six months. However, the guards knew he was a caring person. In fact, Mark became the babysitter for the other guys in the prison. The correctional officers came to Mark because he seemed to be the personality magnet in the prison. His cell was continuously visited by other prisoners. Finally the judge looked at him and said “Down and Out!” That meant, he was to get his things; he was free!
A Painful Road
But freedom was just the start of a painful, drawn-out road back to sustainably reconnect with society. He was sent to a mental hospital after that to a rehabilitation center for two months. He found a roof at the homeless shelter while working in a nursing home as a porter. After that he was given a choice on where he wanted to go. He said, “Trenton”, and they issued him a train ticket to Trenton. His first day off the train he went to the Salvation Army homeless shelter. He registered online and started working at a temp agency. Standing in line with 30 people in front of him, the lady at the counter pointed to him. “You!” she called, staring at him. “Come here!” Somehow she knew Mark was not a familiar face from the familiar crowd of those with substance abuse or motivation challenges. Mark explained his situation and was immediately offered a job. Mark promised, “Give me 30 days with a bed, and I’ll be out of here! I am a laborer. I know how to work!” She responded, “Ok - I’m going to do it for you. You don’t have to wait in line. You can come in and leave as you please. But you are not allowed to come back here for two years!”
Restoring Hope in Life
Mark found a temporary job at Johnson & Johnson driving a fork truck loading trains. That’s when he got his feet back on the ground. He also found God. Based on his brother’s encouragement, he attended a breakfast where they invited him to come to church. He joined a church led by Pastor Kevin Powe called Destroyer of the Destroyer Ministries. It was then that Mark got faith. He was doing two packs of cigarettes and lots of blackberry brandy and wine. As Mark explains it, “One day I sat up in the front of the church. At that moment, I got saved. I accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as my Savior. When I did that, overnight it took away all my desires to smoke and drink.” Mark kept going to church. He later was made a deacon. He loved the atmosphere. Mark added, "My experience with Pastor Powe, Pastor White, who taught me to renovate houses, and the Lord changed my life. They gave me faith, belief, forgiveness, patience, and understanding, each of which allowed me to be excited about life again."
With a felony on his record, it was difficult for Mark to get a real job. His friend had a friend who suggested he go to AmeriCorps. There he did a lot of community service with the Youth Corps in Syracuse. He then returned to Trenton to work for a nonprofit as a community organizer. At his job, he was asked to do something he did not feel was right. He decided to quit. Based on some rumors that Newark was more open to hiring someone with a questionable record, Mark took off for Newark with $20 in his pocket. He managed to get a car and survive with daily pay from a temp agency, but his pay wasn’t enough for him to keep his car. He had to make a choice between a place to sleep and a car. He decided to drive back to Trenton to ask help from his church friends. He was able to work for three weeks and slept on the floor of the church. Mark recalled, “For four years, Pastor Powell was able to mentor me in life and in carpentry.”
A friend in Newark called, and promised him a job in his garage fixing cars. He would allow him to lock up in the garage so he could sleep in the office. For three weeks, Mark slept sitting up and watching the shop. Thefts went down. The garage owner commented to Mark, “I like your honesty!” That led to him being able to find a cheap apartment. Based on how the owner saw Mark treat the customers, he was offered to manage the used car dealership for $300 a week. Unfortunately, after a few years, another compromising situation at work ensued, and Mark chose to leave.
The Conservancy Reentry Program
In 2011, unemployed once again with very little money and a felony on his record, Mark found the Greater Newark Conservancy. They offered a reentry program for 30 men and women for $8.40 an hour. His first day on the job he remembers weed whacking a big graveyard for practice. Mark’s strong work ethic set him apart from the others. Robin Dougherty, Director of The Greater Newark Conservancy, came to Mark at the end of the day and said, “I’m going to hire you!” Later that week, the crew put down mulch. A division arose between those who had been in prison for more than fifteen years and the short timers. Mark, claiming himself to be a Mandingo warrior, was able to diffuse the argument.
Robin asked Mark, “Did you think when you came in that you could supervise them?” Mark answered, “Sure!” to which Robin replied, ‘You’re hired!’ Robin explained about their intention to start an urban farm, and he needed Mark’s help. He remembers the older guys looking at him and murmuring “Look at that (racially inappropriate term) work!” Mark just kept on working. A few days later, to the surprise of the crew, Mark was named their new supervisor. Mark manifested “Black Power” to them, yet in a kind and loving way.
The power of working on a farm
For weeks they broke ground for the farm. Rocks from the torn down buildings needed to be hauled away. Robin Dougherty, Director of The Greater Newark Conservancy, was a great mentor to Mark. The first year, Mark watched the seeds they’d planted come out of the ground. He used to hear the crew members say, “This is for the girls. I aint doing this!” Mark thought to himself, “Wow… this is going to be a tough one! They don't want to plant.” Yet in a week or two, all those tough guys, when they saw all the collards, lettuces coming up, they were so excited, they couldn’t stop talking about it. They brought all their wives, their friends. They had discovered that the farm brought them peace and comfort. They realized that first year what it could do for them and at the same time create beautiful, amazing food!
Transformation on the Farm
When asked “How would you describe the effect or change the farm experience had on you?” Mark replied, “I could take the toughest guy or girl. I could work them through planting. They would see it come up and change. And then they would eat it! That feeling of healing was so powerful. It was a great awakening inside of them. At the farm, Mark felt the freedom he needed to grow. There was no need to prove anything or worry about what others thought of me. He shared, “I could just get out there in Nature, plant that seed, and see it grow. I thought of so many people that needed to see this and experience it. I would talk to the plants. I would sing to them; and they grew! Farming freed up my mind. To me, a rainy day was a sunny day. It changed my concept of life. My motivation came by declaring ‘today is going to be a great day!’ I took that and made sure I gave it to everyone else." He also affirmed, "I bring my radio out to build a relationship with those plants. They like music!”
When asked “How did you know how to grow?” Mark said, “Most of my parents and grandparents came from the South. I already had the ability to plant, even though as kids we never really paid attention. A lot of it came from working with Robin, the Director. He was there to show us how we were to do it that first year. Most of it was reading and following the directions on the back of the seed package.
Mark calls the Hawthorne Avenue Farm his own. He takes great pride in how it looks, as it represents his team and what this farm can do for people. He is sure to instruct those working with him to prepare the rows as straight as they can be. He owns it like anyone would own their backyard. He said, "The farm is designed to be enjoyed by the neighbors - tapered and neat. That means we as a team weed wack and mow neatly. The trees are pruned. The beds are weeded." Mark added, “I observe that the trellis area is properly growing. I still experience the joy of planting - the joy of putting that seed in the ground. I feel joy when people come and ask, ‘How did you do that?’”
Over these ten years, Mark Kearney has positively influenced and impacted the lives of hundreds. Mark shared just one example of his friend Asim. Asim came into the farm reentry program. After serving a four-year sentence for using illegal drugs, he had started his first day at the farm. He came to me, “Listen, I have to get my son. Can I leave a little early?” With 19 guys on the crew who were being held to work a full day, I looked at him and asked “What’s up?” He explained, “My son’s mother brought me my son and told me, ‘Now you take care of him!’ She brought him to me. Now what am I going to do?” Mark answered, “Yes, you may leave early.” He sensed that the plight of this young father was serious. Asim left in a beat-up car. Every day he’d come early - the first to arrive. He’d park at the gate. He was dependable day after day. Mark committed to Asim, “I’m going to get you a job here.”
And so for months this continued. Everyday Asim left at 3 pm. He took the responsibility so quickly to raise his own son. He committed to change his life in just three months straight. Finally he graduated from the farming program. Mark was able to get him hired to be a part of the team. Asim was well-built and strong. He said, “I want to get my certification. I want to do this health-food thing.”
A few years later, Asim drove by and invited Mark to come visit him at the gym. That evening he drove to the given address. He saw that Asim was the owner of the gym: the head trainer! He was running a cross-fit gym with a staff of about 70 dedicated coaches. Mark exclaimed, "It was beautiful, simply awe-inspiring! Here my friend Asim had his own gym- Beneficial Life Style! This guy is a story! Out of jail, took his son, out of the farm, went partners with someone, and now he is a business owner!" Mark added, “I have so many successful stories just like this one!”
Mark’s Advice and Insights
Mark is a living witness of the power of the farm. In fact, Mark often declares, “I am the farm!” He also meekly acknowledges, “I am just a farmer!” He’s not afraid to share his past: ex-offender, mentally ill, illiterate until the age of 26, yet he overcame all that through his experience with Christ and on the farm at the Conservancy. He feels very fortunate to have found something he truly loves to do. Mark is an inspiration and a friend to all who know him. He is more than a survivor after the myriad of challenges he has overcome: suicide attempts, imprisonment, and a wife who left him. New life came to him when he began to grasp the power of the farm and growing things. Now, Mark is cultivating people and growing a community on the farm.
For those young and older who don’t yet understand the power of the farm, he concluded, “It’s easy for me in my head, but for someone who is playing video games or out partying, it doesn’t make sense. We have to present it to them- a working farm with a harmonious atmosphere. Unless we build it, they won’t come. That’s our job. We just need city leaders to give us the space so we can produce; so we can show them!”
Mark Kearney on video (2 Minutes)
Author: Farmer Karl