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An Ex-Addict Pushes a Message of Hope and Healing

By Amanda Staab

Reinaldo Daniel Diaz had to hit rock bottom before he could turn his life around and  stop his addiction. Now, he is an active member of the Bronx community, reaching out to as many young people as he can. Photo by Amanda Staab

Reinaldo Daniel Diaz had to hit rock bottom before he could turn his life around and stop his addiction. Now, he is an active member of the Bronx community, reaching out to as many young people as he can. Photo by Amanda Staab

On a recent cold and windy Friday night in the Bronx, rumors spread on the street about a gang initiation week about to start. While some residents were afraid to leave their homes after dark, one man opened the doors to a local church and invited the community to come together in song.

Reinaldo Daniel Diaz, a 40-year-old man with a robust frame and a big smile, took center stage alongside his seven teen backup singers, and the crowd joined in, singing “Healing rain is falling down. I’m not afraid,” a gospel song by Michael W. Smith.

La Iglesia Evangelio de Amor church on Van Nest Avenue was packed with kids and adults, all of them standing in rows and clapping to the beat, some of them closing their eyes and gently shaking their heads. The happy clamor echoed outside, and even more people came in and took a look around.

The focus of the event, though, was not the religion or the music. It was the young people of the Bronx.

“We want to show them that you can be part of a community without being part of a gang,” said Diaz, once he came down from the stage.

Diaz, commonly called Danny within the community, is a substance abuse counselor who has been organizing similar events up to three times a month at local churches, schools, and youth prisons. He began this work a year and a half ago through LifeCause, a grassroots organization he started from his parents’ basement in Soundview.

“I live right in the midst of this war zone, which I call the Bronx, New York City, and we’re fighting for the lives of our kids, to give them a shot,” he said.

LifeCause aims to raise awareness among young African-Americans and Hispanics about HIV and AIDS, gangs, substance abuse, domestic violence, and any other issue that disproportionately affects those communities. Since he started, Diaz has recruited approximately 12 kids who either met him through the various congregations he visits or at the events LifeCause sponsors.

In addition to acting out real-life scenarios in skits and helping distribute free AIDS tests, Diaz’s team tries to reach out to other teens and talk to them about the issues and whatever else they may be facing. The goal, said Diaz, is to send a message to the young people that they can persevere despite difficult circumstances.

“The dream is to let this movement, so to speak, LifeCause affect these kids and, hopefully, they’ll affect others and their families,” said Diaz. The group not only addresses awareness and prevention, but also what the kids are doing to prepare for a successful future.

“We try to get them involved in GED courses,” said Diaz. “We try to get them involved in jobs. We bring them back into community, help them get connected with other youth, other churches, and with other people who are striving to do the same thing.”

Though local churches and other community groups sometimes help host events, Diaz funds most LifeCause events entirely on his own, with his own money. Though he’s not a rich man – he makes little more than $40,000 salary – Diaz manages to make it work.

“This is not an overnight thing,” said Diaz. “I’ve been just saving and buying, saving and buying.” Little by little, he has accumulated tables, chairs, and sound equipment. This past summer, his parents and sister helped him purchase a concert-grade stage for LifeCause events.

Diaz and his team are careful about their methods. They don’t lecture. They try to break the issues down and present them in music, skits, or games, any way that will get through to the kids.

“We tell them how it is,” said Carlos Aristy, 21, who’s known Diaz for years and started helping him write and act out skits about drug abuse and gang violence. “This is real life. This is what they go through.”

Aristy was raised by his grandmother in Hunts Point. At a very young age, he had witnessed exactly how drug addiction can destroy a person’s life. While his peers hung out on the street, Aristy used that example to keep him motivated in school. He managed to graduate high school on time, but dropped out of college after only one year. After talking it out with Diaz, Aristy said he was inspired to go back to school, and now he plans to start at Bronx Community College in January to pursue a degree in digital arts.

While he’s in college, Aristy said he plans to continue helping Diaz. He said his experiences with the group have opened his eyes. The event that moved him most was two months ago. Diaz and his crew visited a Bronx youth prison, where Aristy noticed a small kid, a nine-year-old boy, sitting in the back of the room full of teenagers.

“I was like, ‘We really got to hit the community,’” said Aristy.

LifeCause also organized and sponsored several block parties this past summer with music, raffles, basketball, and even free haircuts. Local churches hosted the events, which also included health information and free HIV tests.

“Our goal is to make it so normal for a person to want to get tested or to want to implement a coping strategy or a condom negotiation strategy,” said Diaz. He’s also organized conferences for pastors, so that they can raise awareness about health concerns with their own parishioners.

LifeCause hosted a block party outside the Rock of Salvation Church at 1179 Hoe Ave. last October. Photo courtesy of LifeCause

LifeCause hosted a block party outside the Rock of Salvation Church at 1179 Hoe Ave. last October. Photo courtesy of LifeCause

“There are issues that need to be spoken about in church,” said Diaz. “People may not readily want to hear what the doctor has to say. They may trust the pastor.”

Diaz and his LifeCause team are praised by members of the community. “He’s great at what he does,” said Albie Sanabria, the youth minister at Crossway Church on Bruckner Boulevard who met Diaz at an event a year ago. “He loves people. I see the joy when he deals with people, even on the street.”

Diaz wasn’t always hitting the sidewalks and passing out pamphlets on HIV. He openly talks about the years he was a drug addict, lost on the streets.

“I came up in the city, and even though I had great parents, somewhere along the cracks, I was traumatized,” he said. Diaz said that he was sexually abused when he was four years old by a family friend who used to babysit him. He kept it a secret, but the effects carried into his adolescence.

“I started to act out,” he said. “I started to be very angry and wanting to hurt myself, and slowly but surely, I began to medicate.” Diaz got hooked on alcohol and drugs. He started with nicotine and moved on to marijuana, then cocaine.

Diaz dropped out of high school as a junior and began hitting the clubs. He eventually worked at a few, stocking the bars and collecting bottles during parties. For nearly three years, this kept him and his drug business busy. The extra money also helped him fuel his own habit.

By the time he was 20, Diaz hadn’t acknowledged the trauma of his past. He buried who he really was under a shell, he said, and it felt horrible. His addiction isolated him, and he was losing relationships. Diaz would be gone from home for days at a time, and his parents had no idea where he was. When he did sometimes return, he said his mother would hide her face and cry when she saw him.

“I was in the grips of addiction where all that was important for me was the next high,” said Diaz. It wasn’t until he found himself reeking of urine and smoking crack alone beneath the staircase of a Morrisania project that he thought he might have hit rock bottom. That’s when, he said, he asked for a sign from God.

“I decided to give him a chance,” said Diaz, “because I had lost a lot, lost relationships, lost family, was losing my home. The turn-around comes when you begin to lose everything and you become aware of it.”

Two days later, Diaz made his way home to tell his parents everything. His family had been praying for him and asking close friends to keep him in their thoughts. That afternoon, his older sister, Elizabeth Diaz, asked him to go with her to her church, a place where people had gone for help with problems similar to his.

As children, the two siblings had been very close. Diaz said every time someone offered him a candy, he always asked for another for his sister. He never left her out. As a teenager, Diaz wrote a rap with a friend that haunted his sister while she witnessed his decline. “‘There’s more to life than this,’” she said the hook went. “‘There’s more to life than this.’ That’s what comes to my mind when I think about those days.”

The church she took him to was the Love Gospel Assembly on the Grand Concourse  in the heart of the Bronx.  Diaz, hard and streetwise, took a seat in the back next to his sister. To his surprise, he recognized a prostitute he knew standing a few pews ahead with her hands up in the air, singing.

“I look at this woman, and I see the tracks, the heroin tracks on her arms, and I couldn’t believe that she was beautiful, clean, and she had tears in her eyes, but she was smiling,” said Diaz. “I was like, ‘How can she be smiling and crying at the same time?’ I didn’t understand, and then it hit me that she was experiencing something that I wanted.”

The pastor stopped the service in the middle and announced that God wanted  him to ask if there was anyone in the pews who needed to approach the altar and receive a blessing. Diaz’s sister looked over at him and told him to go.

“I challenged Danny that afternoon,” she said. “I said, ‘Danny, what’s it going to be? If you’re a real man, you’re going to go up there.’” Reluctantly, Diaz walked to the front of the church. The pastor placed a hand on Diaz’s forehead.

“It was like God stopped everything that he had to do in heaven just for me in that very moment and made himself real to me in that very moment,” said Diaz, who previously hadn’t been much of a believer. The blessing was his first experience with God, he said, and what made him really change his life.

That same pastor, the late Bishop Gerald Julius Kaufman, helped Diaz find a rehabilitation center, and when Diaz made it through the 18-month program, Kaufman hired him as a janitor for the church.

“That place made it happen for me,” said Diaz. Focusing on his new job and avoiding old acquaintances helped him stay clean. On his lunch breaks, said Diaz, he volunteered at the church’s kitchen, which served about 400 meals to the homeless every weekday. He was taking his apron off, getting ready to return to work, when a woman, a social worker who also attended the church, approached him.

She asked him to have a seat with her on the white marble stairs leading to the first floor. She told him that she could see his potential and that he could do whatever he wanted with his life. “You know what happened that day?” Diaz paused and started again a bit softer. “I believed her.”

The woman suggested he start with his GED, and he did. He went on to apply to Fordham University, but the admissions counselor there told him he might have a better chance getting in somewhere else. Just as he was walking back toward the subway and about to give up, his cousin told him, over the phone, about the college’s Higher Education Opportunity Program, run by the state to give economically and educationally disadvantaged students a chance at college. Diaz turned around and ran to the program director’s office and asked for a chance to prove himself. He said he also promised the director that if he did make the cut, he would stay in the city to reinvest in the young people who were just like him.

“When she saw that I was serious, she gave me a chance, she gave me a shot,” said Diaz. He was admitted and enrolled at the age of 24. Diaz graduated in four years, and that’s when he started his work as a substance abuse counselor in the Bronx.

Diaz is now helping recovering addicts through his job at the Next Steps program, run by Albert Einstein College of Medicine on 161st Street. “It’s the fulfillment of who I was born to be,” said Diaz. “I really feel that this is my purpose and calling in life. Anything that I do with it almost feels like part of a puzzle is coming together.”

In the future, Diaz plans to develop a program through LifeCause that would help at-risk teens or young people already abusing drugs or dealing with other issues get back on track and get access to education and jobs. For now, he is also taking night classes, working toward a dual master’s degree in social work and theology at Fordham.

His aim, though, is not be a pastor with a single congregation. Instead, Diaz said he would like to continue spending his weekends reaching out to as many young people as he can by walking the streets and organizing various LifeCause events.

“He’s a leader,” said Diaz’s sister. “He’s always been a leader, and to see him lead is really a beautiful thing.” He’s dynamic and creative, she said, and knows how to motivate people.

His team members value the way Diaz has used his experiences to inspire others. “He’ll look at something, and he’ll say, ‘I want to do this, this, and that,’” said Adam Olazabal, 20, who volunteers as security for LifeCause events whenever he can. “He’ll come up with a little idea, and as he goes on, the idea will keep growing… and you’ll see it.”

Because he spends his own money to fund events, Diaz lives in a few rooms in his parents’ basement. The space that might otherwise serve as a bedroom is filled with folding tables, tents, a collapsible stage, sound equipment, and boxes upon boxes of HIV tests.

Diaz has managed to carve out a corner for his office, a small desk with a computer that is surrounded by shelves overflowing with books on health and religion.

“My thing now is reading up on gangs, homelessness, and all types of social ills that I address,” said Diaz, “things that help me sharpen my skills.” A thick book with Billy Graham’s smiling face on it was turned toward Diaz as he sat. He said he also tries to follow the examples of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Mother Teresa, and Gandhi.

Like some leaders from the past, Diaz believes his faith and his responsibility to his community go hand in hand. To explain it, he paraphrased words from the Bible: “Do away with your religious rites and your religious ceremony. That’s not important. Be just. Do what’s right by your brother.”

Though he grew up in Soundview, Diaz does most of his work in Morrisania, a section in the Bronx, he said, that really needs help. “Morrisania has one of the highest rates of everything,” said Diaz. He then listed diabetes, HIV infections, and gang violence. “It’s an epicenter.”

Poverty and an overall lack of resources and opportunities necessary to succeed, said Diaz, have held back several Bronx neighborhoods. And, many times, those who actually do make it, don’t come back to help.

“When people usually get it together, let’s say, they want to get out,” said Diaz. “To them, that means success. Nobody wants to stay. Nobody wants to reinvest within the community.”

Olazabal, who met Diaz at the church on Grand Concourse, grew up in Bronx projects and said he’s seen much of the same.

“Everybody feels they’ve done enough,” he said. “Everybody thinks, ‘Well, you know, I’ve already put my part in, so let me let the next person do whatever I didn’t really finish.’ That’s how a lot of things never get done. That’s how there are a lot of gaps.”

The young man said Diaz is different and he believes in what the LifeCause founder is trying to do. After all, Olazabal himself is another example of Diaz’s success. He recently took the GED exam, after Diaz helped him register. Olazabal, who’s been in and out of trouble, now plans on going to college, and he’s considering a career in music or carpentry.

Though Diaz himself is a success story, he has kept his promise and stayed to be a positive force in the Bronx. Again, he referred to the Bible:  “He said you are the salt of the city. He said you are the preservative of the city. If you leave, the city will rot, the city will go and be no more. In other words, the city needs you.” Then, he took a breath. “Powerful,” he said, and let out a bellowing laugh.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx NeighborhoodsComments (0)

In Class, Teen Immigrants Put Health on the Menu

By Amanda Staab

Bronx International High School students learn that some of their favorite foods in their new home, New York City, may not be so good for them. Photo by Amanda Staab

Bronx International High School students learn that some of their favorite foods in their new home, New York City, may not be so good for them. Photo by Amanda Staab

Most people who immigrate to the United States come seeking a better life, but a group of young newcomers in the Bronx are finding that some things were better back home in Central America.

“All the food that my mother used to cook over there, everything was fresh,” said Maria Mota, who explained that it is quite common for homes in the Dominican Republic to have their own fruit and vegetable gardens. “Here, we have to go to the supermarket.” And there, she said, the produce can be many days and thousands of miles from the soil where it was grown.

That’s one of the issues Mota and five fellow seniors at Bronx International High School in Morrisania are currently exploring in a city-run internship program that aims at helping teens learn more about getting healthy food in their new country.

Learn It, Grow It, Eat It, is run by the Council on the Environment of New York City. It replaces regularly scheduled classes every Friday, when students meet from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. with the project director, David Saphire.

“The food that is brought to New York comes from far away,” said senior Juan Carlos Vasquez, who immigrated four years ago, “so it loses vitamins.” In the Bronx, more specifically, it is sometimes even more difficult to find vitamin-rich foods, as most of the grocery stores are bodegas with  limited selections.

Shoppers, however, can get fresher, locally grown food at the Greenmarket near Lincoln Hospital, where the students recently filmed a short public service announcement explaining how to use food stamps at farmers’ markets. Mota, who’s been in this country seven years — the longest of anyone in the group —  narrated the video in both English and Spanish, while two other girls in the program, Nioluis Vargas and Patricia De La Rosa, acted out a purchase with an EBT card. When the video is ready, it could either appear on a local cable TV station or on the council’s web site.

The kids said it’s important to let people in the Bronx know that they can, in fact, get better produce, even if they are on food stamps.“Even though they want to, they don’t know they can buy fresh fruits from the Greenmarket,” said De La Rosa. The students prefer the Greenmarket, they said, because it carries many of the foods they recognize.

They also recently finished getting plots in three separate community gardens ready for the winter. They’ve spent weeks weeding out what remains of the last harvest and planting garlic, activities that they said remind them of their chores back home. “I used to do it in my home country,” said Vasquez, who also volunteered to do a little landscaping when a few branches on a tree in one of the gardens needed trimming.

Now that the weather has changed, the students have retreated to a classroom at the council’s headquarters on Chambers Street in lower Manhattan. Sitting at a long table flanked by overflowing bookshelves, they took a closer look at their eating and drinking habits, decoding the nutrition labels of some of their favorite foods.

“They’re trying to make it seem like this is a very healthy drink, but if you look at the very small print here, it says 30 percent juice,” said Saphire, holding up an empty bottle with pictures of fruit on its label. The other 70 percent, the students quickly guessed correctly, is sugar and water.

Saphire got out a box of sugar, a teaspoon, and a plastic drinking cup to demonstrate exactly how much sugar that would be. The students said that discovery has been the most surprising so far.

“I was consuming a lot of sugar,” said Vasquez, who had returned from his lunch run with only a stack of cheese to eat. “I’m trying to change my diet to something different because I have seen the stuff I am eating is not healthy for me.” His teacher joked that he could start by eating dairy products in moderation.

In addition to showing the students exactly how much sugar they could be drinking on a daily basis and emphasizing a balance in diet, Saphire also interjected tidbits of business theory. He explained that soda manufacturers often use high-fructose corn syrup, thought by some to lead to diabetes, instead of sugar because it’s cheaper. It also has a longer shelf life.

When the topic moved on to fast food, the kids were not surprised to learn that fresh fruit and vegetables are probably healthier than what they admitted was their favorite American cuisine, McDonald’s.

“It’s like something magic that makes it taste good,” said Vargas, who came to New York from Honduras four years ago. That “magic,” Saphire explained, is really all the salt, fat, and sugar. He has developed a McDonald’s IQ test that most of his students, and many adults, fail.

“Sometimes, things are very deceiving there,” said Saphire. “You think your common sense tells you which has the most fat, and then you’re wrong.” One surprise:  the deluxe warm cinnamon roll has more trans fat than a double quarter pounder with cheese.

De La Rosa was very surprised by the sodium in ketchup, 110 mg per packet –  a third of the salt in a large order of fries.

“I can’t live without ketchup,” she said. Last year, she used to go to McDonald’s with her friends every Friday after school, but this year, she’s already cut back to “sometimes.”

The point of the exercise, said Saphire, is not to scare the kids away from McDonald’s. “I’m not here to say, ‘Don’t go to McDonald’s,’ ” he said, “but I want them, when they are going to go, to get a sense of what they are eating.”

Saphire is an environmental scientist, not a nutritionist, but since he helped start the educational program six years ago, he’s become more knowledgeable and wants his students to know the difference between natural and processed foods. “It’s more like what does a reasonably intelligent person need to know to make an informed decision,” he said.

In addition to their lessons in nutrition, the students also sometimes get a bit of an English tutorial, covering forgotten and new words alike. In a recent week, words of the day were sausage, dilution, and bootleg. “It’s part of what I try to do also, build up certain vocabulary, whatever comes up,” said Saphire. In turn, the kids, he said, have inspired him to take a Spanish class.

When they have finally mastered the basics in food, the students plan to also offer a class for fellow students back at the high school and, maybe, other city schools.

“They don’t know what they are doing to themselves,” said Mota, “like the way that they eat, the type of food that they eat, so they are getting sick and stuff like that. So, we’re trying to tell them how to read the labels, so they know how many calories and how many teaspoons of sugar they are putting in their bodies.”

The students are also happy to expand their sphere of influence. “It’s not just helping in one place,” said Vasquez. “We are going to help many people.”

The program is also not only about food. After finding a broomstick and a tennis ball in one of the gardens, Saphire taught the kids an old American pastime, stickball. “We don’t have the tennis ball anymore,” said Vasquez, who immediately let out a laugh and confessed he was the one who lost it.

The internship coordinator at the Bronx International High School, Deo Persaud, said that it’s good for the kids to get out of the traditional classroom. “We are giving them the opportunity to develop job skills and also get a feel for the work environment before they graduate high school,” he said. The Bronx International High School, part of the Morris High School campus, serves approximately 360 students, many of whom will enter the workforce right after graduation, said Persaud.

All the students in the Learn It, Grow It, Eat It internship program said they plan to go to college, but not to study something food-related, they said — instead, they’ll look for  something “money-related.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, FoodComments (3)

1528 Bryant Ave.

by Alec Johnson and Amanda Staab

From the outside, 1528 Bryant Ave. looks like a decent building. But once inside, it´s clear that years of neglect have taken a toll. Poor wiring, faulty plumbing,crumbling walls and filth caused by both old age and neglect plague the structure.

Residents say that their five-story, 21-unit apartment building has not been regularly maintained for years. The city´s housing department has on file 483 open violations against 1528 Bryant Ave., 162 of them registered since October 13, 2008. The most common complaint was the lack of utilities.

The building´s rapid decline can be traced from July, 2007, when it was purchased by OCG VII, an Ocelot entity, with Fannie Mae financing. Ocelot imploded in late 2008, however, and Fannie Mae foreclosed on the loan earlier this year. The City has now placed the building in its new Alternative Enforcement Program, under the supervision of Marc Landis, the court-appointed receiver.

Irma Aponte and her husband, Eddie, moved into the building 43 years ago and have seen it literally fall apart before their eyes over the past four decades.

“It was beautiful when we moved in,” said Irma Aponte who said the last few owners have walked away from the building after using it to make a little cash. “As soon as they got a few dollars in their pocket they left,” she said.

Aponte pointed to a leaky drainpipe in her apartment, which her husband patched up with a soda can and duct tape over one year ago. She said the electricity shorts out constantly, because of poor wiring all over the building.

“I can´t have air conditioning,” said Aponte who buys whole boxes of fuses when she sees them in stores because they are tough to get.

On Aug. 25, the city took over the building after foreclosing on Ocelot. The city´s Department of Preservation and Development then came in to make emergency repairs.

Since Fannie Mae foreclosed earlier this year, the city´s Department of Housing Preservation and Development has come in to make emergency repairs. A new roof and front door have been installed, securing the building from drug addicts, who Aponte claimed were wandering into the building to smoke crack in the stairwells. Ramos said the fuse boxes and wiring are scheduled to be replaced soon.

One abandoned apartment on the fourth floor has been turned into a pigeon coop, residents say, by someone who lives within the building.  Twenty pigeons roost on a baby crib. Bags of corn lay nearby in a red plastic container.

The birds and bird food attract vermin and roaches into the already decrepit building, Aponte said. “I would like to know what they´re going to do with the building,” she said, “because we have no landlord.”

Posted in HousingComments (1)

806 E. 175th St.

by Alec Johnson and Amanda Staab

Serious repairs are underway at the notoriously rundown apartment buildings at 806-808 E. 175th Street in the Tremont neighborhood of the Bronx. Earlier this year, a group of tenants convinced a Bronx judge to replace their negligent landlord with a new manager who would finally make the improvements.

The two adjoining brick structures near the north end of Crotona Park have five floors each and 43 units all together. They are now getting more than just a fresh coat of paint.

A recently installed new boiler ensures that every tenant has heat and hot water. New metal front doors are replacing the old wood ones that were considered fire hazards.

“It’s getting better,” said Gladys Archer, a retiree who has been a resident for nearly 20 years and heads up the tenant association.

Before February, the building had hundreds of violations on file with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) that included collapsed ceilings and rodent infestations. But, in February, several residents took their landlord, Ocelot, to Bronx Housing Court, hoping to force the owners to make the necessary repairs.

“That’s what you have to do if you want to live where you’re going to live,” said Archer. “You gather together and you fight.”

She said that Ocelot managers kept promising that repairs would be made soon.

“We promise, promise, promise,” Archer said the owner told residents. “But, meanwhile, they were taking us to court for rent, and the building was coming down.”

Since then, the Bronx Housing Court has appointed a new administrator, Rafael Lara, an experienced manager and executive director of New City View Development, to look after the buildings and their tenants.

“We’ve been renovating most of the apartments,” said Lara. He has a $175,000 bond, forfeited by the landlord, to work with, and repairs have been ongoing since he stepped onto the scene.

In some cases, residents whose apartments have severe mold and mildew problems after years of continuous leaks have received new drywall in their units and even new kitchen cabinets. Some bathrooms have been renovated, and the hallways have been redecorated, wiping away graffiti. “We’ve been correcting it little by little,” said Lara.

Some residents complain that Lara is taking too long with the repairs.

“They’re all complaining he’s slow,” said Archer. “He’s taking care of the leaks, slowly, but it’s being done. February to now, it’s a lot of improvement.”

Posted in HousingComments (1)

A Music Group Gives Teens a Voice and Hope for Their Futures

by Amanda Staab


The music carries a message in Morrisania. Photo by Amanda Staab

Desperate to find an alternative to hanging out on the streets like other teens, one young Bronx woman joined her school’s football team.

“I wanted to do something and that was pretty much the only opportunity I had,” said Olivia Tapia, 15. “It was very hard. Not many of the teammates wanted me to be there because I was the only girl.”

She finally put her helmet away a year ago, when she discovered a small but growing group Music with a Message at Renaissance E.M.S. (Education, Music, and Sports), a non-profit organization in Morrisania that offers kids educational programs for after school and on weekends.

“It is a drop in the bucket in comparison to the need,” said Bervin Harris, a professional music producer who founded Renaissance E.M.S. near the corner of 163rd Street and Third Avenue in 2001. “There are hundreds of thousands of kids here in the Bronx community who will never get the opportunity to pick up a guitar or any other instrument.”

Harris is not from the Bronx. He grew up on Long Island, where, he said, schools still have arts programs and students have a lot more access to music education. He said the band classes and sports he took part in as a teen kept him coming back to high school every day, so he wanted to motivate kids in the South Bronx in the same way. He opened Renaissance E.M.S. in Morrisania, he said, because it is a dying community without many positive activities for teens.

“So, instead of talking about the problem, I always ask myself what can I do to help the solution,” said Harris. “I took that mentality through college, and I have been doing social development off and on and balancing a music career at the same time,” he said.

Harris now mentors 200 kids each Saturday and reaches 1,200 others through his Music on Wheels program, which brings arts programs to schools that have none, all the while managing a full-time job producing Hip Hop, R&B, Jazz, and Gospel with various artists. He also released a record of his own inspirational music in 2003 and created a song called “Care for Me” for the National Coalition of the Homeless.

His newest project, Music with a Message, was created this past summer and includes a dozen of his most promising protégés, who write and produce many of the numbers they perform.

“What we started doing is writing songs to help these kids deal with their issues,” said Harris, who encourages his students to dig deep. “I told them, ‘Don’t just write me any common lyrics. Study it. Do your own research. Ask some questions, and then write the song to speak to the inner person, not just the shadow on the outside.”

One song written by a student is called “Care for Me” and depicts a girl trying to tell her parents what her life is like and how she needs them to be there for her.

“My friends do drugs right on the block,” the song goes. “Some have guns and fight a lot…. The pressure to fit in is on my back, from gangs and drugs and being fat. Please don’t delay when I leave home today. Hug, say you love me, as I go on my way.”

While writing songs to cope with their own lives and researching topics many teens could relate to, said Harris, the kids in Music with a Message are also learning to be social developers themselves and role models to other teens.

“The role model is an example of someone doing,” Harris said he tells the kids. “So, when you talk about a song and you talk about spreading love, it has to start with you.”

The kids take this message seriously. Seventeen-year-old Yesenia Berroa said joining the group six years ago helped her stay out of fights going on at her middle school.

“I don’t know how I would be without this music program,” she said. “I would be a completely different person.”

Berroa is now college-bound, she said, and after learning to play the guitar and piano in just a few years, she plans to teach music when she graduates.

“It’s very important for kids to get the opportunity to learn music because it’s a foundation for life,” she said.

In addition to providing students with an outlet and supportive environment, Harris and his crew also push academics by having the kids bring in their grades each week for a little friendly competition. Every kid is part of a team, and the better each student does, the closer each team gets to earning a trip to Great Adventure at the end of the school year.

While they may already be dreaming of waterslides, the kids in Music with a Message wrapped up their first season with a concert at the Teen Health Summit at Benjamin Franklin School last month. On a blacktop surrounded by a tall fence and lots of project housing, the students unfolded their stage from the side of a truck and danced and sung for the crowd with big smiles on their faces.

“When you see something like this and there are no gunshots ringing, this is positivity,” said Harris. “We don’t hear about this in the news. You got to go see it.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, EducationComments (2)

Fries and Pizza After Class Beat Out the Menu at School

by Amanda Staab


Fast food lures students after school. Photo by Amanda Staab

For some students in the South Bronx, the 3 p.m. bell doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to go home. Instead, it signals lunchtime for many teens at Morris High School in Morrisania.

Dozens of students, who often skip both breakfast and lunch, make their way toward 165th Street to the nearest Chinese restaurant conveniently serving up French fries, their favorite, or cross Boston Road to a deli advertising fried chicken and pizza.

“This is not healthy, having this all the time after school, but it tastes better than what we are getting at school,” said senior Sereane Swanson, holding books in her arms while she waited for two friends to finish their fries, drenched with ketchup and barbecue sauce and reeking of grease.

Most of the teens appear to be healthy, but obesity is a growing problem in the Bronx. One third of high school students and two thirds of adults are either overweight or obese, according to the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Though they may not want to believe it, the students, especially those with a junk food habit, are not immune to high cholesterol and hypertension.

“It’s not long before they’ll start having their heart attacks and their strokes,” said Alicia Flynn, a nutritionist at the nearby Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center. She often helps teen clients find healthier ways to snack and eat meals.

The Bloomberg administration has also tried to do its part and support initiatives to encourage New Yorkers to eat better. In addition to targeting trans fats in public restaurants, the city has made changes to food in schools. In the past two years, student lunches have experienced a makeover that included less fat and sodium and more whole grains.

But many teens say they just don’t eat the food even though half the high school students in the South Bronx are eligible for a free or reduced lunch.

“It’s nasty,” said senior Malaysia Scott, who’ll only eat the French fries.

Another student, sophomore Raul Lopez, said he usually only eats the pizza or chicken fingers. But, he admitted, he prefers fatty foods.

Still, other students said they can get fruits and vegetables in their cafeteria, even if they are required to fill up a full tray of food they don’t necessarily want in order to get them.

“Even though it’s a waste of food, you have to get a tray,” said sophomore Diamond Carothers. Students take what they intended to get and throw away the rest.

This strikes a chord with Flynn. She’s not sure how much food is wasted in Bronx schools, but, she said, “if someone can calculate it, then we have something to yell and scream about.”

In addition to teaching kids the value of what they throw away, Flynn said schools might consider inviting private vendors into their cafeterias to offer students healthy meals, maybe even ethnic foods that they just might like, in exchange for vouchers.

“Food is food,” said senior Juan Vasquez. “You can’t waste it. If you’re hungry, you got to eat. It’s unhealthy to not eat when you’re hungry.”

That  attitude is precisely the root of the obesity problem among young people in the Bronx, said Flynn. “When you skip meals, you throw your metabolism off, you slow it down,” she said. This makes it easier to gain weight and harder to lose it, which can put a teenager on the road to obesity.

In an effort to promote more healthy eating, the Bloomberg administration recently put more restrictions on school bake sales, which traditionally helped student raise money for extracurricular activities and trips. The move angers some students. “I would like to keep them,” said junior Aaron Heatley. “It brings more money to the school for funding.” The restrictions, which are being implemented this year,  allow schools to have one bake sale a month as long as it takes place after lunch and raises money for the Parent-Teacher Associations and other parent groups. Between sales, said Heatley, the kids will just have to sell candy instead.

Even Flynn doesn’t think the restriction is helpful. The bake sales teach kids to work together for a common cause, she said, and having dessert once in a while isn’t such a bad thing. “As a nutritionist, I say go ahead and have your cake, just know how much you can have,” said Flynn.

The city also plans to make healthful improvements to the snack selection in vending machines at schools. Students said they don’t know many classmates who can afford to use the vending machines too often, but it might be a good start to getting kids on track to better health.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, FoodComments (0)

In McKinley Square, an Unlikely Grocer

by Amanda Staab


At the Youthmarket, buyers get healthy bargains and sellers learn about the business of farming. Photo by Amanda Staab

On McKinley Square, a small, paved island in the middle of the busy intersection between Boston Road and East 169th Street, local students run an outdoor farmers’ market, bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to the South Bronx.

“For the community, it’s providing access to healthy food at a reasonable price, and for the kids, it’s helping them develop all kinds of skills,” said David Saphire, the project director for Learn it, Grow it, Eat it, a summer program that teaches students about eating healthy and growing their own food. For six weeks, the kids get their hands dirty in three community gardens in Morrisania, and a portion of that harvest is sold at the outdoor market.

The market in Morrisania, open every Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.  from July through October, is one of four Youthmarkets, which are considered satellites of the larger, more established Greenmarkets. They are organized by the New York City Council on the Environment in the Bronx, with others in Marble Hill, Tremont, and Riverdale.

“There are some neighborhoods that farmers are reluctant to dedicate a whole day to working in because they feel they wouldn’t have the sales, but yet, there is still a demand for fresh produce,” said Saphire.

The goal behind the markets is to provide healthy food to poor communities, and in its second year, the market has seen business change, as cash sales dropped and food stamp sales soared to more than half the total transactions.

Youthmarkets stand out from other farmers’ markets in New York City that don’t have the same pressure to cater to lower income crowds.

“It’s marvelous that the farmers’ market has come to the South Bronx for less fortunate people with healthy, good products that we definitely need in this community,” said Arlene Overstreet, a Morrisania resident for 31 years who recently bought all the produce for her family dinner for just $6.

The produce comes mostly from farms in upstate New York. It supplements the limited selection ordinarily available to residents in the Bronx.

“There’s a shortage of venues for buying healthy food, for buying fresh produce, and it’s even more difficult to find locally grown fresh produce,” said Saphire. He would not call Morrisania a “food desert,” a new term used to describe regions with close to no healthy food access, he said, because there are grocers in the neighborhood. “It’s just that the predominant stores are bodegas that don’t sell very much fresh fruit and vegetables.”

As an environmental scientist, Saphire researched reusable packaging for everyday products for 10 years before he joined the New York City Council on the Environment. Six years ago, he was asked to head up a high school educational program that eventually developed into Learn it, Grow it, Eat it.

A Brooklyn native who spent many summers outdoors in upstate New York, Saphire decided the best way to get urban kids to connect with the environment was through food.

“Kids related most to the environmental issues that had to do with their health, and then I thought, food would be such a good, unifying theme for that,” said Saphire. His students, he said, had a fairly good sense of what was healthy and what was not, but they hadn’t really taken the time to evaluate their own habits.

In addition to teaching them exactly how much sugar is in some of their favorite beverages and other helpful healthy tips, Saphire took his students out into the field, including  three underutilized community gardens.

Farming doesn’t thrill every student, said Saphire, but some of them really take to it. “It’s cool for them,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Wow.’ They just get into it.” The most enthusiastic students are invited to participate in the Youthmarket.

Stephanie De Jesus, a 19-year-old student reorganizing the tomatoes laid out on the stand, said Learn it, Grow it, Eat it changed her eating habits, as she experimented with cooking meals without the high sodium seasoning popularly used in Hispanic cooking.

“It taught me how to substitute those ingredients for healthier ones,” she said. Her time in the gardens not only inspired her cooking but also gave her a deeper appreciation for the outdoors, which has influenced her  hobby of painting.

Local shoppers often ask the kids about the food and its effect on health. “I like it,” said Qiana Nicolau, who just completed trade school for cosmetology. “It’s actually showing people new things they didn’t know.” When customers come back to the market, they often tell her how much better the fresh produce tasted compared with what’s available at local grocers.

The market also serves as a classroom for nutritionist Alicia Flynn, who works two blocks away at the Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center, and her clients. Many times, Flynn has taken patients with hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes to the market where Saphire and his crew show them what healthy foods the land produces for them to eat.

Pointing to the bounty on the table, she said, “People can see that these are actually grown from the ground. It doesn’t come from a package.”

Her biggest obstacle, she said, is usually getting her clients over the hurdle of their own cultural foods, containing mostly just starch and protein and very little fresh produce.

“First, we have to convince the people that they want it,” said Flynn. “We got to give them ways to taste foods. You got to eat it, then believe it.”

When the market retires for the winter, she knows her clients will return to their diet of mostly rice, beans, potatoes, and meat because fresh produce just isn’t that readily available.

“Grocery stores have it,” she said, “but it’s expensive.”

Despite the struggle to find affordable, healthy food, Overstreet said she has already seen a change in the way her neighbors view fresh fruits and vegetables.

“They are buying more and they’re appreciating it,” she said.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, FoodComments (1)