The Unlikely Ascent of New York’s Compost Champion

Garrulous and affable, Mr. Morales all but fizzes with energy and ideas. As he threaded his way through the streets of Harlem after visiting one of his compost sites one recent day, he pointed to a community garden: He’s aching to stage an intervention on its saggy looking compost bins and install a concrete pad that would deter rats and make shoveling easier. He also thinks the manual labor involved in composting could be packaged as outdoor workouts he’d call “Motion with Meaning,” and is working on a video series.

“I have all this burning energy that never dwindles,” Mr. Morales said. “It’s just there.”

Stamina was drilled into him early. Mr. Morales grew up with six siblings in Soundview Houses, a public housing complex in the Bronx. On her paydays, to save on subway fare, his mother had the whole family walk some 15 miles to Red Hook, Brooklyn, where she worked as a home health aide, to pick up her check. To help with rent, Mr. Morales sold candy on the subway, often getting ticketed for illegally moving between subway cars.

The family moved to public housing in East Harlem where Mr. Morales, who is small in stature, learned to fight. After his stepfather got arrested and charged with marijuana possession, the kids were split up and sent to foster care. “My whole family was destroyed for weed,” Mr. Morales said. Yearning to belong, Mr. Morales befriended guys who hung out on the street. Some committed suicide, others were stabbed or shot.

At 17, Mr. Morales learned that his girlfriend was pregnant; they had a second child two years later. Mr. Morales found work as a hotel porter, a repairman, a computer technician. “I always mastered the job, it became very boring, the same thing over and over, and in most cases I was underpaid,” he said. After quitting a salad bar gig that paid $6.75 an hour, he sank into despair.

On one especially dark day, Mr. Morales was heading into his building when he saw a notice for Green City Force, a nonprofit that trains young people from public housing for solar installation, horticulture and other green jobs.

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