We are checking in with tenants who have been on the Swift Campus for over a year!

Chavon Hamilton-Burgess and HHI are in the Health Outcome Wheel House for North Hartford!

The confidence Chavon Hamilton-Burgess exudes is infectious. It’s not the kind people wear like a mask. It comes from within. And, people can tell. In her business, that trait positions her uniquely to connect with people and the source of her passion—helping them live better and longer lives.

We recently caught up with Hamilton-Burgess in her Hartford Health Initiative (HHI) office here on the Swift Campus. She’s been here over a year and we wanted to check in on her. It’s not that we’re worried. Chavon Hamilton Burgess is a public health researcher with an edge.

As Founder/Executive Director of HHI, her world is defined by data sets and what they represent concerning health outcomes in North Hartford. But, Hamilton-Burgess’ efforts push beyond those numbers. It’s about the whole person and their whole environment.

“Lack of education, healthy food, transportation, finances, housing and access to health resources are all major social drivers of the negative health outcomes and disparities we see in the data. We are connectors. We connect people to a network of partners and services from right here in the neighborhood,” Hamilton-Burgess said. HHI Partners include; the Trinity Health Care Triple Aim Collaborative, Blue Hills Civic Association, Compass Peacebuilders, Hartford Knights, Northside Church, the YMCA, Advocacy to Legacy and the Urban League of Greater Hartford.

HHI has settled into their Swift Factory digs nicely. “It’s dead smack in the middle of the neighborhood we do our work in. You can’t beat that,” she said. “And, the Swift Staff is supportive of us in helping us grow our operations. And, I like having the meeting space and outdoor event space,” Hamilton-Burgess said.

When Hamilton-Burgess first got to Swift, she was a flurry of activity organizing the events through which she created those connections, a soft introduction between resident and service provider attendees. But, this year, things have evolved under the Covid-19 Pandemic. And, it’s different but not all bad. Challenges provided opportunities for growth.

“We’re doing a lot of tele-services now to cover what we would normally do in person in the community or at events. We’re doing surveys and care coordination as well. It might stay as an option,” she said.

Hamilton-Burgess’ experiences as a life-long North Hartford resident allows her to dig deep into the culture driving the community’s data. A graduate of Weaver High School, she went on to Atlanta Emory University and took a job with the Boston Public Health Commission. Hamilton-Burgess then came back home and joined Hartford’s Institute for Community Research where she realized services did not necessarily have to change, but, they needed to be better coordinated. And, it’s all about better communication.

“People don’t talk about the negative health outcomes they are experiencing here in North Hartford enough. That’s why we are in business. We get this information directly to the community and work with the community to involve their voice in everything we do,” Burgess said.

Hamilton Burgess knows North Hartford culture well enough to know she has great challenges. It was when asked about her goals facing into those challenges that a spirit of confidence began to shine. “In five years, we hope to be an organization that helps build a culture of health the neighborhoods. Through education, awareness and increased access to equitable health resources, we can make that happen and it will be led by the people in this community.”

The Hartford Plant Company Thrives on the Swift Campus.

Anastasiya Collins, Matt Collins, and Mom Valentina make up The Hartford Plant Company

There’s more than plants growing at The Hartford Plant Company. Yes, there’s a keen mind at the helm and deft hands are moving the operation smoothly along . But, something that only comes from the heart is at the root of it all. It’s called love—the kind you can only get from family.

It all began when Matthew Collins Collins left his native Cleveland, Ohio to attend the Univ. of Texas as an undergraduate in 2005. He then attended graduate school in NYU for a while before leaving New York in 2012 for Boston to attend Harvard where he got his PhD in Italian Literature.

And, then the stars aligned. While working a teaching gig at Harvard, Collins planned to attend a soccer finals match between Spain and Italy. It was cancelled. So on the way home, Collins grabbed a stool at a local neighborhood bar. At the bar next to him was a young lady named Anastasiya. She was a social worker who had recently graduated from UMASS. At 22-years-old , she came to America in 2008 from Minsk, Belarus for an English immersion program but never returned after learning her country was embroiled in yet another cycle of political violence.

A conversation was struck up between the two. A relationship began. And, in 2013, the two were married! Soon, Anastasiya began attending UCONN Law School and the couple moved here to Hartford in 2016 with Collins commuting back and forth to Boston while teaching at Harvard and finishing up his Phd until his wife graduated. She is now a working lawyer, commuting to Trumbull from Hartford a few times a week. So what does all of this have to do with plants? Nothing, so far. It’s just another love story, right? Well, it’s not over. Because, it was love that brought Anastasiya’s mother Valentina to America to be with her in October of 2020. And, it was her life-long love of plants from which the seeds of The Hartford Plant Company sprouted.

Collins recounted that his mother-in-law grew up off of the grid. “Valentina grew up in Siberia. Her father worked on a project to build extensions of the trans-Siberian railway,” he said. “That is where her skills in planting come from.”

Collins said the skill never left her, following her from the wilderness of Siberia to the same Soviet-era “concrete jungle” she lived in for 30 years before coming to America. And, when she got here, planting became her primary activity, as well as a way of expression.

Valentina produces some of the best microgreens in the state! It's all about her love for plants!

“When she got here she had nothing to do and passed her time propagating begonias. They were beautiful. She has real growing skills,” Collins said. Soon after, the family began exploring ways for Valentina to capitalize off of her love for plants. They decided to go into a venture growing some kind of plants. “It’s why we named the company The Hartford Plant Company. We knew we would grow plants. We just didn't know what kind. It wasn’t about micro-greens in the beginning,” Collins said.

After a bit of research, micro-greens seemed to be the best option for the start-up business. Collins said they found the nutrient density of microgreens is many times larger than that of their larger counterparts and it takes much less space and time to grow micro greens. “Microgreens have up to 280 times more given nutrients than full grown plants. We started growing in our kitchen and then word got out. By the summer, we needed more space,” Collins said.

After a short search, they came to the Swift Campus where The Hartford Plant Company is thriving and Valentina is a constant presence. Microgreens bring great benefits to nutrition, but those benefits don’t come by chance. She is at Swift honing her craft continually. “The harvest comes only after 1 to 3 weeks. So, things have to be very precise. She’s really good at this. The restaurants love our product. They love Valentina,” Collins said. He added, The Hartford Plant Company is actively seeking to partner in providing micro greens to school systems. “We can partner in leading, bringing healthy choices to school meals,” he said.

As far as being at Swift, Collins is satisfied with his experiences so far and is excited about new developments for this year. “I love the common areas. We have a nice business community here. Businesses are in operation where they weren’t. You have kids going to school here. And, the library is coming this year. This is all great stuff,” he said. And, you know we love this part at Swift. He is seeking to hire someone to help with watering the microgreens. Who knows? North Hartford might have a little Valentina out there falling in love with plants!

We see this campus as the gateway to economic opportunity in Northeast Hartford!