Haley House volunteer earns kudos for work ethic, research on good food

David Eisenstadter, Special to the Reporter
Jul. 3, 2014

Twenty-five-year-old Dorchester native Omari Hayles, who has twin passions for music and locally sourced food, was recognized this month for his volunteer work at Haley House in Dudley Square, which has provided food, housing, community events, and job training to the less fortunate in different neighborhoods in Boston for nearly 50 years.

Hayles is a regular volunteer at the weekly Community Tables pay-what-you-like meal at the Haley House Café on Saturday evenings. “I like the atmosphere,” Hayles says. “It’s fun and it’s doing something that helps foster community in the neighborhood.”

Of particular interest to Hayles, who graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst with a degree in resource economics, is that Haley House serves up responsibly sourced and healthy food. That is the sphere in which Hayles hopes to some day make a difference. “I spend a lot of time on my own researching food policy changes to laws and things the FDA is doing,” Hayles says.

While he doesn’t have background with a formal organization doing food policy research, his personal research has made him the go-to person among his friends and acquaintances with questions about food, he said. Part of this interest came from Hayles’ own relationship with food and his awareness of what he needed to do to stay healthy. In the past couple of years, Hayles has lost between 45 and 50 pounds simply from acting on a better understanding of food, he says.

“It’s something that’s so personal and so common but so overlooked,” Hayles says of food. “You have to give more attention to it than it gets every day.”

Hayles is happy to be a regular volunteer at Haley House where he participates in food preparation, table-setting, sweeping up, dishwashing, and all the other necessary tasks that go into the community event. He also works as a DJ-for-hire, spinning at weddings and corporate events. “It’s an intersection of music, technology, entertainment, making people happy, being the coolest kid in the rom, and making money,” Hayles says.

He has been doing such events since his freshman year of college in 2007. If he could do it full time, he would, but he hasn’t gotten enough gigs for that yet, he says.

Alexis Harewood, a former volunteer coordinator at the Haley House Community Tables events, said Hayles has been a steady presence at the event. “When I was there every Saturday, Omari was there every Saturday,” Harewood said, adding that Omari also volunteered at the local Food Bank.

Harewood, who had to stop volunteering earlier this year to focus on her full-time eighth-grade English teaching job with Boston Public Schools, said Hayles brought passion to his volunteering. She saw some come to Haley House as part of a volunteer requirement, but not Hayles. “He does it for him,” Harewood said.

Ultimately, Hayles hopes to effect some change in the food system. What that is, however, he can’t yet say. “That could mean getting kids to eat fruit instead of candy bars, reducing waste, or improving regulations,” Hayles says, who hopes to narrow down his goals by hearing from people who have experience in the field.