Tomas O’Grady, Enrich LA’s co-founder, was inspired to create the non-profit enrich la three years ago, along with Leonardo Chalupowicz. They built an edible garden in a Middle School and witnessed firsthand the effect that it had on the school and the kids.
Since then, enrich la has created countless edible gardens in schools throughout the Los Angeles area. Our garden education curriculum also offers funding and implementation of green spaces, school fresh lunches, after-school activities, and vocational career activities. Community involvement and giving back is at the root of Enrich LA, and it’s the centerpiece of every project.
Tomas O’ Grady was born on October 2nd, 1966 in Cooloo House, County Galway in the west of Ireland, where he and his seven siblings grew up and worked on the family farm. Liam O’Grady, who inherited the farm from Tomas’s grandfather, insisted that everyone pitch in.
“My father felt that his principal role as a farmer was to improve the family holding for the next generation. I think that is where I learned about the importance of doing things for the long term rather than for instant gratification.”
“I came to United States in 1990 with $80 in my pocket and heaps of energy.”
Tomas settled in Hoboken, New Jersey and by living modestly, managed to save enough money to buy a small, run down property. He renovated the property on nights and weekends and eventually managed to purchase others, always doing the renovation work himself. He met Justine Tyler, who was visiting from Los Angeles, in 1992 and they were married within the year.
Says Justine, “Tomas was unlike anyone I had ever met before. He had boundless energy, was a voracious reader, an accomplished woodworker, an amazing musician, and had this ability to apply himself to anything. He was always trying to find a better, smarter, more environmentally conscious way of doing things. To be honest, our interest in the environment was borne out of necessity. Tomas was constantly trying to reuse materials so as to cut down on disposal costs and the costs of purchasing new materials. Along the way, we became more aware of how things like this helped the environment.”
Together they hatched a plan to spend the remainder of their twenties working day and night with a simple goal: to be retired by age 30.
“We had big ideas about what we wanted to do with our lives and how we wanted to live, and we wanted to get money out of the way as much as possible,” says Justine. “We are proud of what we have accomplished and that we did it the old fashioned way. We did not buy and sell stocks or try to put together complicated deals. We simply bought old, run down brick worker cottages and brownstones, in what was then the worst part of town, and restored them ourselves with our own hands. Tomas always had a vision of what was possible in these buildings. He was an incredible designer. We did everything. I tiled, he framed, I did the books, he built the cabinets. We spent very little money on ourselves.” Justine Tyler O’Grady. Tomas then got to work on the design of the new family home in Los Angeles. The house, modeled after Tara in “Gone With the Wind”, was to be a “green” white house.
In July 2009, the Los Feliz Ledger wrote:
“If the house seems made to accommodate the family, it’s because it was. Knowing that they would stay in Los Feliz once settled, Tomas and Justine set out to build their dream home from the ground up. Painted white to reflect the heat, the home took four years to construct and is modeled after old Southern plantations, complete with columns that would have made Scarlett O’Hara swoon. ‘I’m a sucker for plantation architecture,’ says Tomas. ‘My friends want to know when I’m getting columns in my car.’ The house, he goes on, is nearly completely green. Solar panels provide heat, rainwater is directed back into the lawn and garden, and a metal roof and industrial fan draw in cool air. His electric bill, he says, averages just $50 a month. ‘I’m very proud of this house,’ says Tomas. ‘I put my heart and soul into it.’…’I’m going to have my wake here,’ O’Grady says, looking around at the house he built. ‘I hope you can come.”
Armed with a laptop, a compass, and a copy of The American Vignola, Tomas spent almost two months designing the home, not in an office, but right on the site so as to, in his own words, “Get a feel for the noises, the way the sun sets, the views and cooler and warmer parts of the site.”
Working almost non-stop for three years, the home gradually took shape. One neighbor remarked, “Some days we literally felt like helping him, he worked so hard. He framed the house himself.” Tomas built a house that utilized every possible innovation to reduce energy and increase comfort.
“I looked not to modern technology but to the past for ways to reduce energy consumption. I was not willing to afford a huge energy bill moving forward. I was determined to prove that one could enjoy many of the desired luxuries of life without a large footprint.”
The house has a standing seam metal roof to reflect the sun. Unable to find anyone to install a metal roof for a fair price, he did it himself. Tomas was tough on subcontractors. There was no compromise. The house was to be perfect and if subcontractors were not up to his standard, he was not shy about confronting them.
A large, two story front porch blocks the harsh afternoon sun and a night time roof fan pulls in cool air from the north side of the building. The laundry grey water pours into the garden and tanks on each side of the house capture rainwater. The salt water pool is heated by the sun. Solar panels provide electricity. The house feels permanent. The grand columned porch with its view of the hills of Los Feliz and the Griffith Park Observatory seems miles away from the hustle and bustle of the busy city.
“If each of us would only sweep our own doorstep, the whole world would be clean.” Mother Teresa
“What is the sense of my family thriving, getting a great education, living in the grand house on the hill, when all around us, people are being cheated out of opportunities, often simply because of ineptness on the part of our government? Where is the fairness in that?” Tomas O’Grady 2011
After taking care of the basics for his own family, Tomas set out to make a difference, to give something back, and to make something right.
The family chose the Neighborhood Nursery School, an outdoor cooperative, in Silver Lake for preschool. Tomas, along with his friend Steve Ronk, built the block house, and later the garden at the school. During his tenure as president of the parents’ association, the school had its biggest fundraising year ever. He began a sustainability program at the school, in which four-year-olds were taught to compost.
Later at Franklin Elementary School, Tomas revamped the kindergarten area, installed a reading garden, planted the playground and joined the board of Friends of Franklin.
The atmosphere at Franklin, a school with a wide diversity of income, of everyone working together with egos left at the door, is exactly what caused Franklin to earn an API of 894 in 2010.
“He has this incredible ability to just get people to come and do it with him. People just flocked to help him achieve whatever project he had to do,” says Leslie Weinstein
Community involvement and giving back is at the root of Enrich LA, and it’s the centerpiece of every project.
Enrich LA’s give-back ethos is derived from Tomas, who feels that he has a lot of be thankful for. Hailing from a farm in Ireland, he arrived at Kennedy airport in 1990 with $80 to his name. He and his wife began developing real estate in Hoboken, N.J., designing projects and building them himself. By the age of 30, with a lot of sacrifice and hard work, he had made his fortune.
“We are truly the cheesiest version of the American dream. The U.S. was so good to me that I wanted to give something back.” Enrich LA has allowed him to return the favor.
“Our goal is to have young kids appreciate whole foods so that by appreciating it, they’re not drawn to french fries and hamburgers.“
Not only do palates evolve, but student morale, test scores and class involvement improve drastically.
While Enrich LA appreciates any and all in their community who want to pitch in on a project (you can find more information on volunteering here), Tomas really puts his volunteers to work. This isn’t the sort of volunteer gig where you show up, do a few light tasks and then call it a day. Oh no, Tomas is the epitome of a kind-hearted but rough-around-the-edges Irishman with a no-nonsense demeanor and passion to get things done. He’s serious about his projects, and he expects the same from his workers. As he put it himself “it isn’t your typical volunteer day.” You either go big, or you can volunteer elsewhere.