Stephen does not mind going the extra mile for his students. He knows that the only way to help them escape poverty is by empowering them with knowledge. As a teacher, he touched the lives of many; his devotion to his vocation has taken countless kids out of trouble and put them back in their classrooms. In order to make education more appealing to the students of Discovery School, Stephen devised a creative way to entice them and rekindle their love for learning: he started maintaining a garden in the school. He taught his students valuable life principles with an analogy of how plants grow and do their best to live just as humans do.
It did the trick, and there was nothing Stephen would not give for his beloved kids. He believes that the best thing adults can do for their kids is love them; love motivates them to always wake up in the morning with excitement for what the new day brings. This man, towering at 6’3”, describes himself as the “oldest sixth grader.”
Perhaps there is some truth to that claim, because if he was not “childlike,” how else could he accomplish such a magnanimous dream with nothing but sheer creativity and boundless energy? The Bronx, New York, is not the most pleasant part of the United States; to make matters worse for our hero teacher, his Discovery School was part of the poorest Congressional section of the state. He had students who had done time in prison and had no inclination whatsoever to finish school. In short, they were doomed to make nothing of themselves.
Due to the ongoing violence in the Bronx, some opt to escape it and never come back. Residents had developed a belief that if one wanted to succeed, then it was best to leave the area and never return. Fast-food chains litter the place, and the obesity rate has become a concern not only of parents, but also the government.
What’s amazing about Stephen’s work is that he addressed each of these issues and many more. He set up edible walls in his school, which made learning more fun for his special education students. This also drastically increased the school’s attendance rate. Their garden yielded a bountiful harvest and was able to feed over 400 people! But it didn’t end there; Stephen also enabled some of his students to receive training to do something more worthwhile with their hands than fighting or stealing. By earning certificates, the kids could be paid to help build homes for their neighbors. They were given opportunities to support their ways to college without even having to leave their homes.
You might be wondering how this happened when all Stephen did was set up a garden. The truth is, by doing so, he was not only planting seeds of vegetables and fruit; he was planting hope in the hearts of kids by showing them that there is more to life than the violence that surrounded them. He was 100% committed to making life better for them.
A Story of Devotion
Stephen taught high school at a decent institution before the death of his son sent him back home. He then decided to accept a job offer to teach middle school students at Discovery School. And, since the school was in the Bronx, it had the wrong kind of notoriety. Stephen had students who did time in prison; gang wars were rampant; students with disabilities were put under his care. And, yet, he stayed.
Gardening is one of his favorite hobbies; it was his love of planting that compelled him to share the joy of seeing plants grow with his students. Something about the science of life drew even his most uninterested students to attend lessons, and Stephen began making a name as the coolest and most enthusiastic teacher around. One day, he saw Green Living Technologies installing edible walls in a nearby establishment, and was so impressed by the sheer genius behind the concept that he sought to speak to its proponent, George Irwin. The two began to train students of Discovery School to make their own edible walls! Someone came up with installing wheels, as well, so the walls could be moved from one classroom to another. This allowed Stephen to go from room to room, showing the edible walls to students all over the school.
Their garden grew, and soon they were able to plant enough fruits and vegetables to feed 450 people in the school:
"We grow enough food indoors, in one Bronx classroom – smack in the middle of a food desert – to routinely feed 450 students healthy meals. That is a game changer! When you expand students’ palates, you also expand their vocabularies. Sending home bags of gourmet groceries and healthy vegetables – in a community that has limited means and access to them – drives the value and benefit of attending school across families and builds support for all that we are doing and hope to do. In an ever-growing, ever-hungry world, food is a non-negotiable. We’re growing and consuming it here, zero miles to plate." (SOURCE: Daily Edventures)
Because the kids found the school a more interesting place to be, the attendance rate more than doubled, from 40% to 93%. The kids eat healthy food that the school itself provides; this has resulted in a number of accolades for Stephen, including the first-ever “Citywide Award of Excellence” from the NYC Strategic Alliance for Health. He appeared as a guest on Good Morning America to receive the award.
Another partner, Jim Ellenberger, soon came along. He laid out a business proposal to Stephen, saying that he could use Stephen’s students to help out in his construction business; that way, they could earn a living to help put themselves through college. Stephen did not even think twice about paying for their training out of his own pocket. That act of generosity enabled 10 students to earn their own living, making them the first professionally-certified students of the program.
The “Green Bronx Machine”
The “Green Bronx Machine” was founded in 2010. It is composed of a group of students who install edible walls and urban gardens in affluent homes and establishments; they have also partnered with other organizations to broaden their reach. According to an article written by Stephen for the Huffington Post:
"Our Green Bronx Machine (@greenBXmachine) is a non-profit dedicated to growing, re-using, resourcing and recycling our way into new and healthy ways of living. We're transforming landscapes and mindsets, harvesting hope and cultivating local talent while driving academic engagement and civic competencies in ways we've never imagined." (SOURCE: The Huffington Post)
Indeed, change can happen if one is totally committed to making it pass. Way to go, Stephen!
Organizations and Programs Supported
- Green Bronx Machine
- 1% for the Planet
- Ground Up Campaign
- New York City Strategic Alliance for Health
- U.S. Green Building Council (Green Apple Education Ambassador)
- Green Apple Day of Service
- Green Schools Alliance
- Green Schools National Network
- JVL Wildcat Academy
- Fresh Direct
- Progressive Insurance
- The Apron Project
Awards and Achievements
- 2009: Built an “Edible Wall” at the Discovery School
- 2010: Founded “Green Bronx Machine”
- 2012: Received the “Chevrolet National Green Educator Award”
- 2013: Received the first standing ovation in the thirteen-year history of Green Biz
- Named a “Poptech Fellow”
- Featured in Forbes, Wall Street Journal and Fast Track, as well as on ABC, CNN, NBC, NPR and TED
- Helped earn his school the first-ever “Citywide Award of Excellence” from the NYC Strategic Alliance for Health
- His class was the greenest in New York City!
- Consistently moved attendance from 40% to 93% daily
- Helped fund/create 2,200 youth jobs
- Received the “US EPA Award” for transforming mindsets and landscapes in New York City
- Won the “ABC Above and Beyond Award”
- Featured the first indoor edible wall in NYC DOE
TED Talks (Stephen Ritz: A teacher growing green in the South Bronx)
The Huffington Post (Harvesting Hope)
Green Bronx Machine (About Us)
My Green Apple (Ambassador : Stephen Ritz)
Stephen Ritz (BIO)
Norwood News [Bronx Breakdown: Star Bronx Teacher Banished to Basement & More (Updated)]
Thirteen (Op-Ed: Sowing the Seeds of Social Change in the South Bronx)
We Love Bold (Stephen Ritz: The Lean Mean Green Bronx Machine)
Green Educator (Stephen Ritz)
Daily Edventures (Stephen J. Ritz)
SeedStock (Bronx Educator Grows Organically Engaged Citizens)
NYU Farms (Stephen Ritz: Raising Edible Walls in Harlem)