The Human Experience: The Stephen Ritz Story
How many times during my eighteen years of teaching have I heard my students say they can’t do something? The familiar excuses inevitably follow: It’s too hard, or I don’t know how, or I can’t do it alone.
How many times during my lifetime have I heard a friend say they can’t do something? The familiar excuses inevitably follow: It’s too hard, or I don’t know how, or I can’t do it alone.
Well my friends, I’m here to tell you, it’s all hogwash!
We have been given the tools to succeed, but all too often success is beyond our grasp, simply because we have programmed ourselves for defeat and failure. I call it GIGO, or garbage in, garbage out, and it infects so many people these days that it is epidemic in nature. I can’t do that! I would never be able to do that! I will fail if I try that! There is no way that it is possible!
Well my friends, if those thoughts infect your thinking, then you are a self-fulfilling prophet!
Our minds are wondrous in nature; beautifully functioning computers that accept data given and spew out data based on input. If you keep inputting negativity then you can bet the farm that negativity will be the result. In other words, the more you tell yourself that you can’t do something, the more you will come to believe it, and that negative cycle will spill over into every facet of your life. I know this to be true because I have witnessed it far too often in my life. I know this to be true because at one time I lived that negative cycle.
But no longer!
Today I believe in the power of one person! Today I believe that people are capable of incredible things, and those things can be accomplished if willingness is part of the equation. I would like to share with you a story about one such person. Stephen Ritz is his name and he is a Special Education Teacher in South Bronx, New York.
DETERMINATION AND PASSION
Ritz is a whirling dervish of energy and this man is seriously passionate about his students. In his words, “my students are the most marginalized and disenfranchised in New York City. They live in the poorest congressional district in America and the situation is not improving. They are getting fatter, sicker and poorer…they come to school hungrier and needier than ever.”
He goes on to say, “Kids should not have to leave their community to find a better life,” and he adds that when he wakes up each morning he hopes his reach extends beyond his grasp. In other words, he dreams big and then finds a way to make the dreams happen.
In 2009 his class built an edible wall in the classroom. Ritz was trying at the time to find a way to make the curriculum interesting for his kids. Evidently he succeeded because within six months the students were growing enough fresh vegetables to feed 450 students a fresh vegetarian meal every ninety days.
His attendance rate rose from 43% to 90% and they extended their efforts to include a student-run farmers market that attracted over 500 local parents and neighborhood residents. It was clearly time to expand the efforts. After all, why would Ritz want to rest on his laurels when there were still dreams to be actualized?
BIGGER AND BETTER
While learning urban farming in the classroom, Ritz’s students also learned constructions skills, and eventually they took their show on the road and took on jobs repairing affordable housing in the South Bronx. They formed a nonprofit organization called Green Bronx Machine and the kids earned between $15 and $20 per hour while attending high school.
By the end of 2010 they had installed green roofs and green walls at Rockefeller Center in New York, the John Hancock Tower in Boston, and in multi-million dollar private residences in Long Island.
The first ten participants in the Green Bronx Machine went from being underprivileged, overweight and under-motivated to healthy high school graduates who are now attending college.
Unfortunately, in August 2011, Ritz’s program at Discovery School was discontinued.
That, however, is not the end of the story!
TO INFINITY AND BEYOND
So, the school pulls the program! What to do? Well, for Ritz, the answer was to take the show on the road. In February they will present their work to the U.S. Secretary of Education at a teachers’ conference on green schools in Denver.
The Blue Green Alliance, a grassroots group that creates green jobs, has spread the word about Ritz’s program to Philadelphia, Houston and Detroit. The program, to say the least, is alive and well, and because of the efforts and unending enthusiasm of Stephen Ritz, kids are getting a chance where once no chance was available.
IS IT POSSIBLE ANYWHERE IN AMERICA?
I’m here to tell you that the answer is yes. Let me tell you two experiences I have been involved in during my lifetime.
In 1969 I was a college junior at Seattle University, which at that time was located in a predominantly black neighborhood. This was during a time of great racial unrest in the United States, and I will be the first to tell you that there were times I did not feel safe walking outside of the campus.
I was taking a Sociology class at the time and we were challenged by the professor to develop a project that would give back to the community. My roommate and I decided to start a reading program for the underprivileged kids of the Central District. We made flyers, distributed them around the area, hung them up on bulletin boards and gave them to school administrators.
Within a month we had our first class of five kids and we worked with them on their reading skills twice a week. I am happy to say that those five kids improved their reading skills greatly over the next year. I am happier to relate that our program is still going strong at Seattle University forty-three years later.
Years later when I was teaching at a middle school in Beaverton, Oregon….this was in 2008…I got this weird idea that our school should have an outdoor classroom. I drew up plans for an unused lot on school grounds and then took the plans to the principal. To my complete surprise she approved the plans and one year later we had a greenhouse, community garden, raised flower beds for each class, and a butterfly garden.
SO WHAT IS THE POINT?
The point is not to tell you how cool I am! The point is that I believe in the Stephen Ritz’s of this world. I believe each one of us is capable of doing great things, but those great things will never be accomplished if we give up at the first sign of adversity.
There will always be obstacles! There will always be reasons why you can’t do something! There will always be people who will tell you that it is impossible! Sadly, there will always be people who will shrink away from their goals at the first sign of adversity. Personally, I think that is very sad. I know of no other way to describe it….it saddens me!
I will tell you something that makes me sadder still….there are those who no longer dream of better days. There are those who have been so beaten down that they cannot conceive of their lives ever improving. The light of hope is missing in their eyes and each day brings a continuation of the same helplessness that has marked their lives for many years. That, my friends, is the personification of sad!
I believe in the human spirit! Stephen Ritz is not an illusion. He is a living, breathing human being who saw a problem and found a way to fix it. He saw the obstacles, he was told of the hopelessness, and he said “to hell with it” and found a way!
I am tired of hearing people say they can’t do something. I am tired of the excuses, bellyaching and whining. Whatever happened to the will to succeed in this country? Our ancestors walked across the country in search of a better life. Our ancestors fought wars, survived the Great Depression and refused to give up when faced with staggering odds. Where is that determination today?
Do not tell me you can’t do it! Do not tell me it is too hard!
FIND A WAY!
2012 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
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