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Health & Wellness

South Dallas man gets a new kidney and new life, thanks to innovative programs at Bonton Farms

Daris Lee stands in front of a wooden gate that says "Welcome to Bonton Farms."
Keren Carrión
/
KERA News
Daris Lee of Dallas says Bonton Farms saved his life. Not only did they get him off the streets, offered him a job, and gave him a place to live, but they also helped him receive a kidney transplant.

Working at Bonton Farms is more than just a job. It saved Daris Lee’s life.

Bonton Farms, a 1.25 acre farm in the middle of a South Dallas neighborhood, serves a community that suffers from food insecurity and a lack of transportation, affordable housing and medical care. Over the years, it has expanded into a market, a coffee house, a restaurant, a housing community and a health and wellness center.

“It’s almost like we’re building a city within a city,” Lee said. “We are making things accessible and fair for the people of this community.”

Lee, 49, lives down the street from the urban farm and has volunteered with the nonprofit for almost 10 years. In June of 2021, he became the community health and wellness manager and now helps people find medical resources.

“I was practically dying,” Lee said when he recalled meeting the founder of Bonton Farms, Daron Babcock, 10 years ago. “Had Daron not come at the time that he did, none of this would have happened.”

11082021_Bonton Farms Food Insecurity_KC-9.jpg
Keren Carrión
/
KERA News
“Being able to fight for your place in this community was paramount,” Lee said when talking about his past. Without Bonton Farms, Lee said he would have gone back to the streets.

In Bonton, the neighborhood that houses Bonton Farms, 85% of men have been to prison, and Lee was one of them.

When Bobcock moved to Bonton, not only was Lee on parole, but he had just gone through end-stage renal failure and was beginning his journey on dialysis.

“One of my biggest fears was going back to prison trying to provide for my family,” Lee said.

His health condition made it difficult to work and he struggled to find a legitimate job. When Bobcock told him of his ideas to build a sustainable farm for the community, and eventually recruited him to work, he couldn’t believe it.

“A lot of people down here who were considered unemployable were now feeding and taking care of their families because of Bonton Farms,” Lee said.

Daris Lee poses for a photo at Bonton Farms.
Keren Carrión
/
KERA News
Lee speaks with Micheal Wilson, a runner and ambassador for Bonton Farms. Lee said Wilson supported him through dealing with a mentally challenged family member. "We're more of a family than a place of work," Lee said.

Not only did working for Bonton Farms get him off the streets, provide a source of income, and give him a place to live, but they also recently helped him receive a life-saving surgery.

Lee had been on dialysis, a procedure that removes waste products and excess fluid from the blood when the kidneys stop working properly, for the past 12 years.

Stephanie Bohan spent almost two years as the Director of Health and Wellness Services at Bonton Farms, making space for Bonton residents to get nutrition counseling, cooking classes, and healthcare and wellness guidance.

Bohan took Lee under her wing, mentoring him by helping him navigate his own healthcare. In the short time they worked together, she helped him qualify for health insurance and get on hospital lists for a kidney transplant.

Lee had applied for a kidney transplant using Medicaid, a joint federal-state program that provides health care coverage for low-income people. Lee tried to get on the list at Parkland Hospital for the past 11 years — the only hospital in Dallas that accepted Medicaid for a kidney transplant. He said he didn’t know how to advocate for himself and kept getting denied.

“When you live in a community that is underserved, you get used to people telling you ‘no,’” he said. “None of this would have happened if I didn’t have someone walking me through it.”

According to Bohan, Lee should have been qualifying for Medicare as a person with end-stage renal disease. Lee said he finally qualified because he had Bohan there to advocate for him. This allowed for a living donor and opened the doors to other hospitals that do more transplants per year.

“I immediately started thinking about all of the people that I knew in my community that [should have] qualified and who died waiting for these services,” Lee said. “I've seen people die waiting for a kidney.”

A blood pressure machine sits in a small room at the Bonton Farm offices.
Keren Carrión
/
KERA News
A blood pressure machine sits at the Bonton Farm offices, which used to be Daron Bobcock's home in Bonton. Lee is currently the only employee working for the health and wellness services.

Lee recalled how many of the men who initially started working at Bonton Farms companies couldn’t commit to daily work because of how sick many of them were.

The cardio-vascular disease rate in Bonton is 54% higher than that of the city of Dallas, and the rate for diabetes is 45% higher. In a community where access to healthcare is nonexistent, many residents aren’t getting the routine medical care they need.

Lee’s kidney originally failed due to undiagnosed blood pressure issues. If he had access to routine medical care and had detected it earlier, it could have prevented his kidney from failing and having to go on dialysis, Bohan said.

In December, Lee got media attention as he waited for a “Christmas miracle.” On the day after Christmas, about a dozen strangers called to offer him a kidney, and he was in shock.

“That’s the biggest gift you could give somebody,” Lee said.

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Keren Carrión
/
KERA News
Lee said organ donation is not something you do for your family -- especially in a community like Bonton. "People should educate themselves on organ donation," he said.

Some of those donors started the extensive process to donate their kidney. But, a few days later, they would receive notice their help was no longer needed.

Lee received a call from his doctor at UT Southwestern Medical Center in the early hours of Jan. 5 to let him know he was a backup candidate to receive a kidney.

“At that moment, I dropped the phone,” he said. “I picked it back up and asked, ‘Can you repeat that?’”

When the person who was in line to get the kidney declined to travel to Dallas for the surgery, Lee received another call less than two hours later — close to 3 a.m. He had to get to the hospital as soon as possible to undergo surgery to receive a new kidney.

Bohan insisted on driving him to the hospital. Their relationship had grown and Bohan said she considers Lee as her brother.

“It was the greatest honor of my life,” she said. “I was brought [to Bonton Farms] to make sure he got his kidney.”

Daris Lee poses for a photo at Bonton Farms.
Keren Carrión
/
KERA News
Daris Lee and Stephanie Bohan pose for a photo at Bonton Farms on Nov. 8, 2021. Bohan stayed at the hospital until Lee's kidney was in and functioning, and her husband, a nurse at UT Southwestern Medical Center, helped give him instructions for his new medication at the hospital.

After the surgery, Lee’s new kidney immediately started making urine — a good sign that the organ took well to the body. He lost 25 pounds in fluids but, according to the updates he was giving on the Bonton Farms Instagram, he said “I’m feeling better than I have in a long time.”

He spent eight weeks in isolation while recovering, but he said Bohan, as well as other neighbors and colleagues dropped off food, groceries and medications for him outside his door.

When Lee came back to work at the beginning of March, he was energized to continue providing essential medical services to his community. “I want to be to my community what Stephanie was to me,” he said.

The Health and Wellness Center at Bonton Farms is hoping to start a mobile medical unit that offers blood pressure and diabetes screening with Parkland medical professionals. Lee plans to drive the medical unit and connect with the Bonton community to give them access to healthcare literacy, teach them about organ donation and advocate for their health.

“His heart is in helping people get routine screenings so they can prevent major disease from occurring,” Bohan said.

Daris Lee poses for a photo at Bonton Farms.
Keren Carrión
/
KERA News
The Health and Wellness medical unit, a new initiative by Bonton Farms, aims to provide routine medical screenings to Bonton residents.

Lee is hoping to show his community that there is help.

“I know I would be in prison, and still in dialysis, if it weren’t for Bonton Farms,” Lee said.

Keren Carrión is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Got a tip? Email Keren at Kcarrion@kera.org. You can follow Keren on Instagram @kerencarrionphoto.