MEVO, or the Mahwah Environmental Volunteers Organization, Inc. was founded by Eric J. Fuchs-Stengel with the help of several of his friends in July 2008 when he was sixteen years old. Eric, Samuel Berman and Shane Mitchell grew up together in Mahwah, New Jersey. While many adventures would persist throughout their years together, it was the summer of 2008 that changed their lives. Eric, Sam and Shane spent a lot of their time exercising they ran, rode bikes, and enjoyed lifting weights. It felt good to be healthy & strong but gradually they realized something was missing from their workout routine. Eric suggested, “Hey guys, why don’t we go hiking in the woods, that’s probably better exercise then lifting weights in our basement.
So they took off to the only woods they knew, the 3,300 acre Ramapo Valley County Reservation. A beautiful forest loaded with trails, a plethora of animals and great rocks and trees to climb. Coming from the pesticide-covered lawns and the suburban sprawl, it was magnificent to see all this just ten minutes from their homes! They spent the summer of 2008 hiking through the beautiful forest, experiencing the natural world and loving every minute of it. This is where our MEVO story begins.
In July of 2008, when Eric and Sam were on a hike, Eric noticed that something seemed “off” with the forest. Trash – plastic tupperware, bags, aluminum cans and beer bottles – littered the heavily travelled lower trails of the reservation. Eric asked, “Why would people trash such a beautiful place, one unlike anything in the surrounding suburbs?” There had to be a problem. Eric loved the forest and the vast expanses of land – he cherished it and respected it. The Ramapo Reservation had changed his outlook on life. It made him happier and healthier than he had been before. It has expanded his vision for his life and community: there was so much more to the Earth – so many beautiful places, people to see and experiences to have.
But what was the problem? Perhaps those who littered didn’t understand the value of the Ramapo Reservation, or maybe they didn’t care. Nevertheless, he saw the trash and didn’t want to leave it there. Eric found inspiration in the story of his cousin Jesse Fuchs-Simon, who when he was fifteen founded the not-for-profit American Youth Understanding Diabetes Abroad, Inc. To address the diabetes education gap in South American countries. With this example in mind Eric brought his friends together with the idea that: trash is a problem, founding a not-for-profit would be taking action to solve it. Eric called his friend Sam and said, “Let’s start an organization to clean-up the Ramapo Reservation! And at that moment, MEVO was founded.
It took the friends several days to think of a name and goals. They wanted to make sure that people understood who they were and what they did. They also knew they wanted an acronym, something that was flashy and cool to say. After tossing around ideas and letters, they decided on VEO, Volunteer Environmental Organization, which sounded like a good idea but still didn’t have that official feel. For two Mahwah High School students, living in Mahwah, New Jersey, who hiked the Ramapo Reservation in Mahwah, NJ, the missing letter was obvious. M for Mahwah! And that’s why MEVO is the Mahwah Environmental Volunteers Organization. Little did Sam and Eric know, but MEVO would change their lives and impacts thousands of people with the environmental sustainability work the organization accomplishes every year.
The original program of the organization was the Earth Crew but at the time they just called it, “MEVO,” and the idea was simple. A group of passionate high school students went out on Saturday and organized volunteer events that promoted environmental sustainability and greater connection to nature. High School students from Mahwah High School would get together on their free time, without school credit, and without any expectation of reward and take hands on action to create the future they wanted to see. The Saturday volunteer events were diverse in their focus: trail building, distribution of compact fluorescent light bulbs to residential homes, painting and distributing recycling bins, electronic recycling drives, pruning & gardening at the New Jersey botanical gardens, invasive species removal in parks, planting trees and native shrubs, going on group hikes, and so many more.
These years MEVO grew rapidly: managing several small community garden spaces that would grow food and donate it to food pantries, organizing an extensive amount of trash clean-ups on Stag Hill, and expanding its summer internship crew. In 2014 MEVO was awarded several awards and recognitions for its impactful and creative environmental work: We were declared New Jersey Heroes by NJ First Lady Mary Pat Christie and the New Jersey Heroes Foundation, we received the Seeds of Hope Award from New Jersey Monthly Magazine, Valued Partner Award from the Ramapough Lunaape Nation, and New Jersey State Governor’s Jefferson Award for Public Service. Most importantly, this year we were invited to attend the National Jefferson Awards Dinner in Washington D.C. where our founder Eric received: The National Jefferson Award for Public Service; The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award for Outstanding Public Service Benefiting Local Communities from the Jefferson Awards Foundation. At the time of receiving this award Eric was one of only 200 people since 1974 to be awarded this prestigious honor.
2011 and Onward
The founding staff passed the organization on to future generations of passionate students. Eric stayed involved on the board and as an Executive Director when he was home from college. But for a few years MEVO was managed by an entirely high school student staff based out of Mahwah High School and recruiting volunteers from the school. At this time the high school leaders treated MEVO similar to a school club. Each year when the student leaders were planning to graduate they would train underclassman and pass on the organization to the next crew of high school leaders. In 2012 MEVO launched its farm program, expanded its Stag Hill trash clean-up program, and launched its first summer internship program and at this moment the last High School Leaders decided it was time for a change. The high school team at the time had been managing college student interns, working closely with corporate & government partners, and it had become apparent that it would be very difficult to find adequate student replacements to take over MEVO. The full time work, demands of a start up not-for-profit, beginnings of a full time farming program, and more were just too much of a demand for an already busy high school student schedule. The decision naturally became that MEVO would transfer its main staffing needs to college student interns, start to develop the organization to operate on a more full time schedule, and raise more funding. This year was also the beginning of MEVO’s regular trash clean-ups on Stag Hill and its Farm to Live program establishing urban gardens on suburban lawns throughout Bergen County. The Farm to Live program is the precursor of what eventually would become MEVO’s Fresh Roots Farm and Lovewell Farm.
May of 2015 MEVO signed a Land Use Agreement with the County of Bergen Department of Parks and County Executive James J. Tedesco III to allow the organization to build a two acre sustainable community farm at Campgaw Mountain Reservation in Mahwah, NJ. This was a very significant moment for MEVO because it meant they could expand their organizations educational programs, internship & volunteer opportunities, and dramatically increase their food production from their farming program. In addition, they would be able to create a community space in the County of Bergen that focused exclusively on sustainable farming & education and benefits thousands of people every year. The same year MEVO was approach by a local family in Mahwah looking to have their 1 acre suburban backyard turned into a local community farm space. This property, which eventually would become Lovewell Farm, was put on hold until the Fresh Roots Farm could be built out.
In Fall of 2017 MEVO was able to start building out its second farm in Mahwah, “Lovewell Farm,” located on historical farmland at Peterson Place in Mahwah, NJ. This property would take several years to fully build and integrate into the intensive farm production system of the Fresh Roots Farm but would serve as a welcome addition to MEVO’s programs. The space has became an awesome service opportunity for large amounts of volunteers interested in supporting MEVO’s farms and helping expand the model of regionalized local food systems. This was the first year of MEVO’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Farm Share program where residents of the area could pay money at the beginning of the season for a portion of the vegetables and honey.
Was a huge year for MEVO! The Founder & Executive Director Eric J. Fuchs-Stengel retired after eleven and a half years leading and caring for the organization. Eric observed that it was time for a new young person to take MEVO into a successful and impactful future. He wrote the 2020 – 2023 strategy plans to guide this new leader in their direction with the organization and to help future MEVO staff understand the core values that the organization was created with. Two of these core values are: “We remain open to changing times, needs, and issues and act dynamically to engage with relevant and tangible actions that produce real positive change.” And, “We ensure that Youth / Young People hold core leadership roles in our organization and remain central to its functioning and creative mission to address local & global ecological problems.” Eric remains involved with MEVO as an honorary board member and advisor. This year MEVO was able to put dedicated time into building the majority of Lovewell Farm including: fence, raised beds, tool storage, and perennials. Stag Hill’s trash clean-up program was rejuvenated with a more focused campaign to stop, patrol, & clean-up illegal dumping throughout the mountain. Lastly, a new Executive Director, Violet Reed, was trained and prepared to take on her role leading MEVO for the next five or more years.