Under the Boston Medical Center passageway every Sunday night, a group of cars pulls up, hazard lights blinking.
“As” by Stevie Wonder is playing from someone’s speakers.
Just as hate knows love’s the cure
You can rest your mind assure
That I’ll be loving you always
They’re not here because of a medical crisis — not in the way emergency rooms define it. There are no wounds to be tended or surgeries to be performed. There is hunger, addiction, and homelessness along Methadone Mile.
A half-dozen twentysomethings get out of the car and get to work. They hand out bottled water, ripe bananas, and freshly cooked protein pasta primavera.
“Are you hungry?”
“You want some pasta?”
“How about a banana?”
Every Sunday since June, Celsea Tibbitt has cooked and delivered a couple hundred meals each week. She’s given out more than 1,800 in four months with just a few friends.
People on the sidewalks, some coming from Methadone Mile and nearby parking lots where Bostonians experiencing homelessness and addiction gather, are grateful. Some put the food in their backpacks. Others go tell friends so they can eat. A few find a place to sit and dig in.
The numbers are not shocking to the 26-year-old Tibbitt. As a public health nurse for the last five years, she works for Health Innovations. The mobile clinic provides HIV and STI testing, resources and access to health care, and detox services to people all over the state.
“We meet them wherever they live,” she says. “In the woods, a tent, a shelter, a park, in the alleys. I know from doing this work there is so much stigma around these members of our community. I have the privilege to be able to speak and listen to their stories. Life happened to them in a way that didn’t happen to those of us who are comfortable.”
She wanted to do more to help them. So she started spending her Saturdays at Haymarket, getting healthy food for cheap, as much as she could afford on her own. On Sundays, she and a few friends came together in her apartment to cook and package the meals and got to delivering.
The page doesn’t have a lot of followers — a couple hundred, enough to bring in about $1,500 over the summer.
Earlier this month, Savvor Restaurant & Lounge donated its kitchen space, making it easier for Market Sharing to make meals. Tibbitt’s goal is to keep the food healthy but tasty: pineapple fried rice, cauliflower tacos, bruschetta pasta. She never gives out fruit like apples in case of dental problems. She opts for bananas instead. And there’s always bottled water.
“It’s really disappointing that we live in a country where most people are in school learning how to treat diseases due to cardiovascular disease and overeating, but there are people who don’t have nutritious food to eat, who don’t have a safe place to eat, who have healing to do on an emotional and physical level, and you need healthy food to heal, too,” she says.
On a recent Sunday, there was even dessert: chocolate chip cookies.
“Cookie plug,” one guy yelled out in a small crowd, alerting the others that sweet treats had arrived.
“I know one meal a week isn’t going to do it,” Tibbitt says. “But it lets people know a group of us care. We need to take care of each other. If not, what the hell are we doing?”
Her generosity is infectious. Kamille Hampton found out about Market Sharing through a mutual friend. The architectural designer drives from Worcester most Sundays to join the movement.
“You can drive past the Methadone Mile every day and look straight through these people . . . but when you are down there you realize this is something to not be ignored,” says Hampton, 25.
“Celsea sees an issue and sees beyond the issue. She sees the solution. Her passion to help others extends beyond her job, and being able to see her make change is inspiring. We need to, as a collective, not ignore the ones that are struggling the most.”
Ultimately, Tibbitt wants to buy a cargo van and host pop-up dinners that bring the people she serves face to face with leaders in the medical and nonprofit fields. As a third-year PhD nursing student at Northeastern, she believes healing starts with listening.
“A lot of people making the decisions don’t talk much to the people living in these circumstances,” Tibbitt says. “If we could all come together and talk, we could peel back some of the layers of the stigma. We are each other’s business.”
Caring comes naturally for Tibbitt, who grew up volunteering with Youth for a United World, an organization dedicated to uniting all people through dialogue and compassion.
Sharry, her mom, says Celsea has always has a heart for helping. The family is from Franklin, N.J. But with Celsea at Northeastern for undergrad and now her PhD, and her younger sister Chiara a sophomore at Boston University, Sharry visits often. Market Sharing has become a family activity.
“She’s the oldest of 14 grandkids. She’s always been kind of the mother hen, the caretaker of everybody,” Sharry says as she hands out bottles of water. “She got in trouble once at school for getting into a fight. She was sticking up for someone who had been picked on all year.”
Now Celsea and Market Sharing stand up for the Bostonians most at risk of being criminalized for their circumstances. As the city sweeps Methadone Mile, it’s harder to do their work.
Market Sharing has to change its route, sometimes splitting up and moving around from Boston Medical Center to a parking lot near CVS to a nearby McDonald’s in the South End.
“When we are ready to distribute, recently the police have made it difficult to locate the individuals we are trying to assist,” Hampton says. “Since they are displacing them from one street to another, we tend to drive around in our cars and hope for the best.”
For that reason, Tibbitt wants volunteers to have water and food in their cars to ensure that if they come across a few people, they can serve them. For her, it’s important to keep coming back.
“Sometimes they just want to give you a hug,” Tibbitt says. “They are really grateful. It’s really heartbreaking to hear someone say, ‘Wow, I haven’t eaten in three days.’ I love when I am able to bring in another nurse with me and in those cases we can help patients.”
One Sunday they noticed that a guy — one Tibbitt had seen before — was off. The stride of his walk was imbalanced, he stuttered, and his glasses were crooked. She asked him what happened. He’d been jumped. Signs pointed to a concussion. She took him to the emergency room.
“I knew something was wrong,” she says. “It’s about being present and not looking the other way.”
A box of bananas in her arms, Celsea walks up and down Mass. Ave., making sure everyone has enough to eat for the night.
One man recognizes her and gives her a hug. “Just as busy as you can be. Thank you, baby,” he says, taking his food. “You’re an angel.”
No lies detected. The South End Angel is real.