When Darien Davis talks about childhood memories with his mom, the first thing he mentions isn't the exciting moments like their family vacation to Disney World. Instead, he recalls running errands—riding shotgun while his mom checked off to-dos. It was daily life together he loved most.
"I was [joined] to the hip," he says. "[She] was like my best friend."
They also loved cooking and eating out together.
"She'd make a mean chicken fajita," Darien recalls. "We were big foodies."
Darien was happy, living with his mom and grandparents in a close-knit Dominican community in New York City. But when he was 11, everything came crashing down.
A HEAVY SECRET
One morning, Darien woke his mom to say goodbye and went to school. When he got home, he settled down to relax in the living room with his grandparents and cousin.
"The door opens, and then I see two of my aunts coming through the door," Darien remembers. "They were hysterically crying. Everybody was really confused because we didn't really know what was going on. My aunt said that my mom was gone, that [the police] took her. That's the moment I remember most."
Darien was angry and confused. Before his aunts' revelation, he hadn't known his mother had been arrested and was fighting charges in court. Darien started giving his grandparents a hard time over the next few years. Above all else, he kept the secret of his mom's incarceration to himself.
"I never really told any of my teachers … what was going on," Darien said. "I never wanted to use that as an excuse to get pity or anything, or just any type of special treatment. I didn't want to end up making it worse than it needed to be."
'I never really told any of my teachers … what was going on. I never wanted to use that as an excuse to get pity or anything.'
NOT THE ONLY ONE
Darien's mom was in prison nearby, so he was able to visit her—but he missed their day-to-day times together. The secret of her incarceration weighed on him. When she called and asked Darien and his grandmother to attend a Christmas party at a nearby church, he was surprised but agreed to go.
"I was just being supportive, and I wanted to just go to wherever she wanted us to go," he said.
The event was an Angel Tree® Christmas party, where Darien received a gift his mom had selected for him along with a personal message. Darien was thrilled that his mom had found a way to remember him at Christmas. On top of that, the Christmas party gave Darien something else—a reprieve from his isolation.
"It was nice knowing that I wasn't truly alone in the situation," he recalls. "There was kids younger than me, older than me, my age. You think you're probably the only one going through it in the city, but you're really not."
Realizing there were other kids in the same situation transformed some of Darien's anger into drive. He decided he didn't want his grief to become an excuse to make bad choices. He wanted to be someone other kids could look up to.
"That's what fueled me a lot to make the best out of the worst situation … to be an example for the other kids that I was seeing around me during those times," he says. "I just chose to stay the course and keep going."
'There was kids younger than me, older than me, my age. You think you're probably the only one going through it in the city, but you're really not. … That's what fueled me a lot to make the best out of the worst situation … to be an example for the other kids that I was seeing around me during those times. I just chose to stay the course and keep going.'
GIVING BACK WITH HOOD VEGAN
After Darien turned 18 and was no longer eligible for Angel Tree Christmas, he became a volunteer. He helped at parties, wrapping presents and making sure things ran smoothly. When his mother was released in 2018 after a decade behind bars, she joined Darien at the Angel Tree Christmas party and shared with the other families how Prison Fellowship Angel Tree™ had helped them stay connected.
In a few weeks, Darien will graduate from college. This summer, he plans to work at a camp for kids with special needs, as he has for the past three years. After that, he looks forward to beginning a career in software engineering.
WHAT IS HOOD VEGAN?
Darien decided to change his eating habits after learning about veganism from a family member in St. Louis. But in his community, "nobody really understood what it was, and after they did, they were turned off by it because they thought it wasn't for them, [that] it's not for people of lower income."
Darien started experimenting with the traditional recipes of his childhood, using affordable ingredients with vegan modifications. The result was Hood Vegan. Darien plans on publishing a cookbook later this year. He also envisions a Hood Vegan branded clothing line and, one day, vegan restaurants and hotels.
But one of Darien's greatest passions is his Facebook group, Hood Vegan. Darien believes veganism can and should be accessible within any culture and budget. He uses Hood Vegan to educate and inspire, sharing traditional recipes from his childhood using affordable ingredients with vegan modifications.
"[I want] to break down … barriers and have people making better health choices in these low-income neighborhoods," Darien explains. Veganism is "definitely sustainable as long as you do it correctly, know what you're buying and the places you're buying from."
RESPONDING TO COVID-19
Last year, Darien realized COVID-19 would make the local Angel Tree Christmas party impossible, and he worried that some kids might not receive gifts. Darien used the Hood Vegan platform to spread the word. The response was overwhelming, and all eligible children were sponsored. Together with his mom, the church coordinator, and the coordinator's wife, Darien drove all over the city to deliver gifts.
To him, the effort was more than worth it. He wants other kids with an incarcerated parent to feel seen and loved—because he knows the difference it made in his own life.
"If these kids aren't in anyone's sight, they're definitely going to be out of mind," Darien says. "[Through Angel Tree Christmas] I knew that I was cared about, and there were people out there fighting for me to be better and do better."
COOKING WITH HOOD VEGAN
Darien believes veganism is accessible for everyone, regardless of their culture, budget, or circumstance. Here is one of Darien's recipes that you can cook at home.
"SLAT" (Spinach, Lettuce, Avocado, Tomato)
- 1 loaf sesame hero sandwich bread
- ½ avocado
- 2 slices tomato
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- ½ cup baby spinach
- 1 tablespoon vinegar
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
Use a knife to cut the sesame hero sandwich bread along one side, leaving the other side of the bread uncut.
On a 12-inch skillet over medium heat, toast the bread on both sides for a minute and then remove it from the skillet.
Cut the avocado from top to bottom into at least 6 slices. Place 2 slices of the avocado at a time onto the bottom half of the toasted bread until it is covered. Distribute the oil, ½ teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper evenly on the avocados.
Place the 2 tomato slices on top of the avocados (do not overlap slices) and sprinkle ½ teaspoon of salt and pepper onto tomatoes.
Spread baby spinach on the tomatoes. Apply vinegar on the spinach, close the bread, cut it in half, and serve.