Sundae School

updated 09/14/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/14/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

SMACK IN THE MIDDLE OF HARLEM, AN improbable oasis has sprung up on the corner of 125th Street and Fifth Avenue, a vision of Cherry Garcia and Cookie Dough usually seen in New York City's more prosperous neighborhoods. It's a Ben & Jerry's ice-cream shop, complete with bucolic logo of grazing Holstein cows. A sweaty street person toting a steel drum bursts inside and asks, "Can I play for an ice cream?" What the enterprising musician doesn't know is that the men behind the counter used to be in his position—living on the streets, homeless and hustling for change. Welcome to Joe Holland's experiment in social activism, serving calories with a conscience.

Holland, 35, proprietor of Harlem's only Ben & Jerry's franchise, is also behind the counter, making, in exchange for the steel-drum recital, a large, luscious banana split topped with crushed peanut-butter cups, and a customer offers to pay for it. The franchise is a success: Its staff of 12 has served some 4,500 customers a week since opening July 26.

It took three years, though, to raise the money for the store—despite the fact that Holland is a 1982 Harvard Law School grad. "Getting the money took a lot of knocking on doors and healing the bushes," he says. "There were a lot of people saying no." He finally obtained a $100,000 loan from New York State and an additional $65,000 from a local bank.

Although he plans to hire a manager eventually, Holland works 12-hour days supervising the staff. ' "I want to make a personal investment," he says. The shop, he says, provides a way for homeless people to escape to a better life. "This is a bridge," he explains, "where people can find a way out of their distress and into productivity." Seventy-five percent of the store's profits are being plowed back into the Harlem shelter and drug-crisis center that Holland helped establish in 1984.

That sort of corporate philosophy is shared by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the flavorsome twosome who created the Vermont-based company in 1977 and who donate 7.5 percent of their pretax profits to charity. They have generously waived their $25,000 franchise fee for Holland. "I am overwhelmed by what Joe is doing," says Greenfield. The company has also given its imprimatur to a new flavor created by Holland—Harlem Blues Berries (raspberry ice cream, blueberry swirl and chunks of strawberry), which is available only at his store.

Holland turned his back on a lucrative legal career to pursue community work in Harlem. "From the ivory tower, you look out at the ghetto and say, 'Oh, wow, there's a lot of help needed down there,' " he says. "But when you get there and see the immensity of the problems, it is both intimidating and frightening."

His eight-year-old counseling center and 19-bed homeless shelter have since rehabilitated hundreds of men and women. Most of the shop's employees have been through the program. Says Holland: "They've all been tested to show that they are drug-free, and that will continue." Says Martin Booth, who works behind the counter: "The shelter is like a gas station that you pull into for service. By the time you leave, they've filled you up and you're ready to go." Booth earns $5 an hour and is saving money to find a permanent home.

When he's not minding the store, Holland pursues a playwriting career and a long-distance romance with Angela Bassett, an L.A. actress with a role in the upcoming Spike Lee film Malcolm X. They try to see each other at least once a month. But Holland spends most of his time planning new community projects. "Harlem has been inching forward," he says. "When you see projects like this and look behind the counter and see guys who came off the streets with nothing, and they're makin' it happen, it's not only gratifying, it inspires me to do more."

SAM MEAD in New York City

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