Talkative and affable, Mr. Morales is bursting with energy and ideas. As he made his way through the streets of Harlem after visiting one of his compost sites on a recent day, he pointed to a community garden: he can’t wait to organize an intervention on his compost bins sagging appearance and install a concrete slab that would deter rats and facilitate shoveling. He also thinks the manual labor involved in composting could be presented as outdoor workouts which he would call “Motion With Meaning”, and is working on a series of videos.
“I have all this burning energy that never wanes,” Mr. Morales said. “It’s right there.”
Endurance was drilled into him early. Mr. Morales grew up with six siblings in Soundview Houses, a public housing complex in the Bronx. On paydays, to save on subway fares, her mother had the whole family walk about 15 miles to Red Hook, Brooklyn, where she worked as a home health aide, to collect her check. To help pay the rent, Mr. Morales sold candy on the subway, often being ticketed for moving illegally between subway cars.
The family moved to public housing in East Harlem where Mr. Morales, who is short, learned to fight. After her stepfather was arrested and charged with possession of marijuana, the children were separated and sent to foster care. “My whole family was destroyed for weed,” Mr Morales said. Eager to belong, Mr. Morales befriended some guys hanging out on the street. Some committed suicide, others were stabbed or shot.
At 17, Mr. Morales found out his girlfriend was pregnant; they had a second child two years later. Mr. Morales found work as a hotel porter, repairman, computer technician. “I always got the job under control, it got really boring, the same thing over and over again, and in most cases I was underpaid,” he said. After leaving a salad bar that paid $6.75 an hour, he fell into despair.
On a particularly gloomy day, Mr. Morales was walking to his building when he saw a notice for Green City Force, a non-profit organization that trains young people in public housing in solar installation, horticulture and to other green jobs.