Published in Senior Digest on January 2016
Some people ease into retirement, traveling to exotic locales, catching up with friends at the neighborhood supermarket, or fixing up the homestead, long put off because of time constraints. Not so for 62-year-old Greg Gerritt, who still sees many years of work ahead of him to make Rhode Island economically sustainable through protecting the environment and advocating for the poor and downtrodden.
When Gerritt was 14 years old, he remembers reading a book on endangered species. At that young age, he would intuitively know that environmental advocacy would become his life’s mission. Three years later he would create the first Earth Day celebration at his high school in Teaneck, N.J. Later he would relocate to Maine to attend college, ultimately receiving his bachelor’s degree in anthropology in 1974 from the University of Maine. With degree in hand, the college graduate hitch hiked across the country before returning to Maine.
As a self-taught carpenter, Gerritt was able to make a living on his 10 acres of land. He offered low-cost work to seniors. During his 25 years in Maine, he worked to create a sustainable economy by growing a garden and putting up solar panels on his house along with creating an organic homestead.
Gerritt and his wife, Kathleen Rourke, met in 1991 through a personal ad placed in “The Maine Times.” The couple got married at Town Hall in Industry, Maine, and would later relocate to Rhode Island to be close to Kathleen’s family.
His passion for protecting the environment is “on and off the clock,” notes Gerritt. During the day, the Providence resident works as an administrator for the Environment Council of Rhode Island and leads the nonprofit group’s Rhode Island Compost Initiative. In 2012, he received a Merit Award from the Environmental Protection Agency Region I for advancing the cause of compost in the state.
Gerritt gives countless hours of his work off time to environmental causes. As the founder of Friends of the Moshassuck, he promotes using sound ecological principles to enhance the community. He even took his environmental advocacy into the political sphere, where he helped to found the Green Party of the United States and ran for mayor of Providence as a Green Party candidate in 2002. He admits, “There’s just no way to distinguish where my time goes because everything I do is interconnected.”
Through his love for the environment, Gerritt has learned to shoot videos and has become an expert on amphibians in the North Burial Ground in Providence. He has shot countless hours of video showing the development, feeding habits and behavior of fowler toads,” he says.
However, Gerritt may be better known in the Ocean State for establishing the “Buy Nothing Day Winter Coat Exchange” in 1997. According to Gerritt, the idea of giving substance to an already existing “Buy Nothing Day” created by consumer advocates came out of a meeting at the Rochambeau Library in Providence. The initiative had to be “better than a protest,” with the goal of helping the poor, he says.
Gerritt estimates that in its first year, more than 250 coats were given away at the site of the GTECH building. “We just put a piece of plastic on the ground to keep the coats dry, and people game to get their coats,” he remembers. The second year the half day event was relocated. “It was so symbolic placing it between the Statehouse and the newly built Providence Mall. You have “big government” and “large corporations” with the poor in between,” he says.
Gerritt has announced his retirement from the very successful coat giveaway initiative held the day after Thanksgiving. Thousands of coats were given to needy Rhode Islanders at 10 sites throughout the state, he says.
It was the perfect time to leave, notes Gerritt. “It’s grown big enough and should not depend on just me to keep it going. It’s time to pass it on to another person when it’s thriving,” he says.
In Rhode Island for more than 20 years, Gerritt has published two books and scores of articles in newspapers, magazines and on his blog, www.prosperityforri.com. He writes to advocate for a sustainable economy, social justice and protecting the environment, and he does not expect to retire in the near future from his job or other volunteer efforts.
“The work never ends,” he said, noting that there always will be a need for advocates. “I will actually continue my work until I can’t physically do it,” he added.
Looking back at his life as an environmental and social advocate Gerritt has some insight to pass on to those who will listen. “Do what you want to do. Look to see if you are doing what really brings you joy and makes the world a better place to be in. That’s what you should be doing,” he said.