Arden Santana (at center): “We knew immediately who we were,” she said of the night the three became "The Elements of Abundance." Lucy Gellman Photos.
It wasn’t clear who had murmured a joke, but laughter rose across the park, light and melodious, and drifted toward the playground. By a picnic table, blankets spread out with tupperwares of salad and pre-packed sandwiches. A pitcher of lavender lemonade materialized from a cooler. Nearby, kids tried out hula hoops on their waists, ankles, elbows and arms. A few ran giggling towards the playground, where two slides glinted in the afternoon sun.
Welcome to “Breaking Bread In The Park,” a series from The Elements of Abundance—a.k.a. Shayla Streater, Hafeeza Turé, and Arden Santana—that builds intentional community through shared food, conversation, and both kid- and adult-friendly activities. As New Haven and Connecticut morph from late summer into fall, the three are growing their footprint in the community, including a fashion show in Hartford on Sept. 10 and wellness retreat for women on Sept. 24. Details for both are on their website.
“Our vision is ‘connect and build,’” Streater said on a recent episode of “Arts Respond” on WNHH Community Radio. “We are creating a network of community, of individuals, so we can build our village outside of The Elements, where we’re communicating with other families.”
“We’re taking families and individuals out of that isolation and bringing them together,” she added. “That’s the true essence of breaking bread.”
The Elements of Abundance: Shayla Streater (Earth), Hafeeza Turé (Wind) and Arden Santana (Fire). “Our vision is ‘connect and build,’” Streater said on a recent episode of “Arts Respond” on WNHH Community Radio.
On a recent Saturday, that looked like an afternoon spent in community, nestled on a grassy patch between Miller Memorial Library and Hamden’s Town Center Park. But The Elements—so named after Earth (Streater), Wind (Turé), and Fire (Santana)—have been almost a decade in the making.
Eight years ago, Streater met Santana when she was pregnant with her second daughter. “I just witnessed and watched her prepare food” while also mothering and educating her eldest child, Streater remembered. A fellow mom, she knew firsthand how big and heavy those responsibilities could feel. She proposed that the two break bread together once a week, on Wednesday evenings that later became long, laughter-filled Friday nights.
Meals were always homemade, using pantry and fridge staples in a New Haven kitchen that became a second home. While they cooked and ate together, their kids were able to play with each other. It was a system that helped the two feel that much more grounded, said Santana, who now leads SĀHGE Academy. The two also discovered that they shared values as moms and women, including an investment in their kids’ cultural education and intergenerational relationship building.
Avnah Erskine and her mom Sonia Harper, two of over a dozen attendees to a recent "Breaking Bread in the Park."
Then six years ago, Turé entered the mix, and immediately “fit within the piece,” Streater said. Her three children loved hanging out with the other kids in the group. For Turé, who helms the podcast “Labors Of Love” and moved back to Connecticut after a divorce, “it was therapy.”
“The conversation was so easy,” she said on the same episode of “Arts Respond.” “It was always uplifting and empowering, and we had similarities, and we were moving through different challenges in similar ways. It was a safe space for our children, who may have been oblivious to all the stress that we were under. When we came together, it alleviated so much of that.”
The friendship also gave birth to the trio’s name, a throwback to the beloved music group Earth, Wind & Fire that makes space for their distinct personalities. In addition to breaking bread together, the three began traveling across the East Coast to learn Kizomba, a form of dance that began in Angola in the 1980s. Coming home from a class, they passed someone on the street who looked at them, and declared “Earth, Wind, and Fire!”
Top: Diamond Tree, of Hood Hula. "My hoop defines my connection with the universe," she said. "I feel like I'm connected to the earth on another level." Bottom: 10-year-old Amayah Erskine and 4-year-old Silas Phillips.
“We knew immediately who we were,” Santana recalled. “And you could feel the level of respect and admiration and reverence that he was bestowing on us when he said it. That’s the night we became the elements.”
As they’ve grown and deepened their friendship, the three have thought about how to share their work with the wider New Haven and Connecticut community—particularly the women and mothers in their orbit.
On a recent Saturday, families gathered across a section of grass nestled beside Josh’s Jungle, a playground where life-sized giraffe sculptures and a sun-warmed climbing structure greet hundreds of small feet every weekend. On the sloping lawn, artist and Hood Hula founder Diamond Tree taught kids to hula hoop one move at a time. Giggles floated over the space. Conversation hummed and buzzed between parents and friends, all of them keeping watch on each other’s children.
Jaylin Nixon, a fifth grader at Elm City Montessori School, and her mom, Sunasha Nixon.
On a picnic blanket, mom and daughter Sunasha and Jaylin Nixon soaked in the warmth of late August, that kind of New England heat that had just a slight edge to it. Looking around her as she spoke, Sunasha praised the event as an intentional, intergenerational community pulled together by three powerhouse women.
Born and raised in New Haven, she was grateful to have another layer of family in the making. A fifth grader at Elm City Montessori, Jaylin said she was also grateful for the chance to share space with not just her mom, but with other kids in the group.
“The title speaks to it,” Sunasha said. “It’s definitely a village. I love how intentional they are about the multigenerational community they have created.”
“It’s like another home,” chimed in Jaylin. “It feels like a type of family, even though you’re meeting for the first time. There’s a bond.”
7-year-old Tierney. By the end of the afternoon, Hood Hula founder Diamond Tree had given her her own hoop.
Just feet away, Avnah Erskine and her mom Sonia Harper smiled as conversation wrapped around them. Erskine, who lived with Streater when she relocated from New York, said she was excited for an event where her kids could meet other young people their age. Earlier in the afternoon, she had delighted in watching them do a scavenger hunt together in the park. Now, she kept one eye on her 7-year-old daughter Tierney as she learned new tricks with the hula hoop.
“Breaking bread has a larger meaning,” she said. “Our children get to play, get to know each other. A lot of our children, some of them don’t get to experience things like this.”
Her words came to life everywhere a person looked. Across the grass, Diamond Tree rotated her arm carefully, the hoop moving from close to her wrist to the elbow and shoulder. On the playground, 10-year-old Amayah Erskine followed 4-year-old Silas Phillips as he clambered up a set of stairs, counted the playground’s dinosaur cutouts, and squealed in delight on his way down a slide.
Even Driss Mellouk and his young son Salah, who had come to enjoy the park after time at the nearby library, joined in.
“He was curious,” Driss said. “just having fun with other kids. It’s good. Whenever kids can have things to do together, it can be great.”
Alana Phillips, who got to know The Elements through her friendship with Santana.
It’s also a release for parents. Feeding her infant daughter Amina, Alana Phillips recalled meeting Santana seven years ago, in 2015. Since then, Santana has become a mentor as Phillips has navigated motherhood twice over. Saturday, she drove from her home in Enfield to join the event.
“It’s a village,” she said. “You have people learning from other people, friends making friends. That’s always a blessing.”
In the same spirit, The Elements are planning events into the fall. On Sept. 24, they will offer “Restoration,” a hybrid afternoon of acupuncture and acupressure, reflexology, massages, a visit from author Anita Kopacz and a sensual, pleasure-focused and movement-based practice called Chama Life. It is open to women, who often dedicate time and energy to everyone but themselves.
“The idea of Restoration is really pretty much for us to take a pause and a reset,” Streater said. “To pause, and to restore that energy or love back into ourselves. If we’re depleted, how do we give to others?”
“We always pour into others, and we wanted to be able to pour from a full cup,” Turé added. “As divine feminine, as the mothers, as the wives, we really set the energy of those around us. So when we are coming from a healed, whole space—we really can change the vibration of the planet. We truly are building a village around taking care of ourselves.”