It began a dozen years ago when George Benner would return home from the grocery store with his son, Oliver. Before they could reach their apartment within the Mary Ellen McCormack public housing development in South Boston, they would be greeted by Oliver’s friends. Benner would encourage the kids to look through the bags. He would invite them to help themselves.
“A couple of little kids would look and see something, and we just started letting them eat right out of the bags, whatever they wanted,” says Benner, who graduated from Northeastern with a degree in criminal justice in 2001. “These guys were hungry. So we started the feeding program.”
Benner soon was creating Round Table, a charity that has been helping adolescents and families in and around South Boston since 2008. At that time, Benner was also coaching a basketball team of local fifth- and sixth-graders, who taught him the importance of his new mission. When they were hungry in their first season together, Benner says they went 0-30; the next year, when they were being fed regularly by Round Table, they went 30-0.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Benner has been preparing 20 to 30 meals every day and delivering them to local families. The pandemic has played a role in the growth of his operation: Milk crates used by agencies delivering food and supplies during the pandemic were being discarded at the housing development. Benner has filled them with soil and converted them into more than 200 planters, which augment the 3,600 square feet of gardens that he tends.
“I grow kale, Swiss chard, arugula, all kinds of leafy vegetables—lettuce greens, romaine, buttercrunch, mesclun,” says Benner, who also serves as merchandising director of the Claddagh Fund, a charity run by the Dropkick Murphys, the Celtic punk band from Quincy, Massachusetts. “I put 15 tomato plants in, and I’m going to be getting more from a donation. I’ve got eight cucumber plants going, hundreds of seedlings, all kinds of chives, some bok choy. I’m going big with the mint to have summer drinks. I came across a bunch of squash and zucchini—there’s going to be a big demand for that.”
Benner himself is an example of perseverance, a quality he learned from his single mother, who recently retired after working 25 years as a waitress. Benner dropped out of high school but—at his mother’s insistence—earned his GED and enrolled at Northeastern through a scholarship.
“I just wasn’t ready, I guess,” he says, of his first experience at Northeastern. “I couldn’t handle it. I got asked to leave.”
Benner went back to waiting tables, like his mother. By now he was raising Oliver. He decided to return to Northeastern, this time taking out loans to pay for it, and graduated on September 11, 2001.
“Our ceremony was cancelled because of the tragedy that hit our country,” Benner says. “I wound up walking the next year with the Class of 2002.”
He did it with Oliver: Benner brought his seven-year-old son onto the stage with him to be photographed with his diploma.
Benner is a Huskies fan who regularly attends sporting events on campus. Round Table receives financial support from Northeastern, and in return, Benner has painted the entire community center red and black in honor of his alma mater.
In the early days, Benner and the kids he feeds and coaches would raise money by selling fruit snacks on Northeastern’s campus as well as at train stations and other parts of Boston. One-third of the proceeds paid for the original cost of the snacks, another third went to Round Table, and the final third belonged to the kids.
“You guys can earn some money what you need—if you want a backpack, if you want sneakers, if you just want money for yourself,” Benner says. “It was a learn to earn program.”
His Round Table work has been supported by the Dropkick Murphys and their foundation. Benner had been following the band as a fan since their launch in 1996, which led to a relationship with their Claddagh Fund.
“Our charity became one of the first recipients of a Claddagh Fund donation,” Benner says. “From that point on, I was just returning the favor—let us help you now. Next thing you know, my son and I are traveling the country and raising money for the Claddagh Fund by selling Dropkick Murphys merchandise.”
The day after the Dropkick Murphys livestreamed a benefit concert last month from an empty Fenway Park (with a cameo appearance by Bruce Springsteen), their frontman, Ken Casey, showed up at Benner’s urban agriculture program in South Boston to once again offer support for Round Table’s ongoing mission.
As Casey told the Boston Herald in 2016, “Every neighborhood needs a George Benner and a Round Table.”