The Founders of the Rochester River School
Joel Helfrich, Cofounder
I am a father, educator, and activist who lives in the City of Rochester, near Highland Park. I am an Adjunct Assistant Professor of history at Monroe Community College and, formerly, a Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. I received his BA in history from the University of Rochester, an MPhil degree in American Studies from the University of Glasgow in Scotland, and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. My doctoral dissertation is a historical investigation of Western Apache struggles over a sacred and ecologically unique mountain in Arizona from 1871 to 2002. I have also worked on animal rights, environmental, historic and sacred sites preservation, and social justice issues. I hold the conviction that a myopic focus defeats the most important work any historian does—being an informed and informative member of society. I see the environment as a site where much of my historical training can be brought to bear, so I continue to pursue those interests as well as others.
Jericsson Pichardo, Cofounder
I am a native of the Dominican Republic who arrived to the United States in 2003 with the dream of becoming successful, just like every immigrant. The first person who came to the United States from my family was my father, who had the courage to get on a boat and go from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico illegally, not knowing of the dangers that he was facing. In his journey, he was kidnapped and almost killed various times. Yet he was still able to get his papers and become a citizen of the United States. My father and my mother are my motivation to do what I have accomplished in the previous years, because when they were young they did not have the opportunities that they have given me. My father was not able to complete middle school back in the Dominican Republic and my mother did not finish high school because their families were poor and they had to work to help their families. I am grateful that they gave me the opportunity to study and accomplish not only my dreams but also help others accomplish their dreams.
The middle school that I went to is called Abraham Lincoln Intermediate School 171, located in a poor neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. The population in this middle school is mostly African American and Latino, who have been struggling to avoid gang violence, drugs, and most importantly dropping out of school at an early age. During my years at Intermediate School 171, I met great professors who pushed me to work harder and attend high school, but them pushing me was not the only way in which I was going to stay in school. I had to think back to what my parents had gone through and in order to avoid what they are still going through I decided to push myself to strive for a better future.
When the time to apply for high school came, I was ignorant of the best high schools to apply to and so were my parents since they did not have the knowledge of any schools in the United States and they did not speak English. Therefore, I decided to apply to four high schools and only got into my last choice. I was a disappointed because I did not know what this school was about. Luckily enough, it was the school that was going to change my life in a positive way. This school was the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School.
When I entered the Harbor School, I did not speak English well and did not know how to swim. This was odd because all of the courses at the Harbor School all of the courses were taught in English, except the English as a second language course. The Harbor School is a maritime-based high school of which I did not have any knowledge of when I first began. I was unaware of my surroundings, I did not have any connection to the environment, and I was ignorant of the richness in ecosystems of New York City.
My ignorance started to fade away during my first week at the Harbor School when I met Ann and Roy for our field class, called “Introduction to the Harbor.” This class was what gave me the foundation about the environment in New York City. Through this class, I learned the history of New York City’s waterways, but also learned how to test the quality of the water by measuring the temperature of the water, pH, salinity, oxygen levels, and turbidity. In this field class not only did we learn history and water quality but we also learned skills that will benefit us in the future. These skills included rowing, community service such as beach garbage collection, sailing, and boating. These skills not only prepared me for my first year of high school but also for the rest of my high school and college career, because due to the skills that I learned in the “Introduction to the Harbor” class, I became aware and appreciative of the environment in which I lived.
These opportunities gave me the possibility to live in harmony and allowed me to become involved in the community in various projects. Some of the projects in which I was involved included building of boats in the marine technology class, helping develop an oyster restoration project (now called the Billion Oyster Project), and scuba diving with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Florida. Through the Harbor School, I was able to travel to the Bahamas and Bonaire to obtain seven scuba diving certifications, including rescue diver and scientific diver.
After seeing all of the progress I made through the Harbor School, I met Joel Helfrich in the spring of my first year of college and spoke to him about the Harbor School. After he heard my story, he asked me if I wanted to create a similar school in Rochester. My answer to that question was “yes,” because I know that with this type of learning, students will be engaged in their community, will learn, and will become better human beings. Also I decided to begin this project because I think that every city should have a school like the Harbor School, with its own twist based on the needs of that city. Rochester is the ideal city for this project because the education system there needs something different--something that would decrease the crime and dropout rates in the community. Also this type of school will allow the young people of Rochester to take advantage of their resources such as the river, lakes, and parks and also allow young people to become stewards of the environment and their communities.