Rocking the Boat grad’s turnaround reflects the river she serves

Veronica Matveev

Toniann German.

Bronx River Alliance’s recreational coordinator uses personal experience to help the environment

As a freshman at Fannie Lou Hamer High School, Toniann German was a self-described rebellious teen who gave her mother and teachers attitude. But she found her purpose after her mother made her join Rocking the Boat to stay away from trouble. It turns out that decision was not just a way to keep a wayward teen busy; it changed her life’s path.

“In high school I was very alone, very depressed,” German said. “I didn’t really have many friends, so having somewhere like Rocking the Boat that was safe and fun and where you have so much positivity was amazing for me, and I think that’s what really shaped me into the person that I am, especially my love for the river.”

German, now 25, eventually found that she couldn’t leave the river. She is now the new recreational coordinator for the Bronx River Alliance, running all of the canoeing and on-water education and conservation events and teaching people everything from how to paddle, to the history of the river, to the reasons to keep it clean. German uses her job to change people’s perspectives of the river and educate them on how they can make a difference in the environment.

“Toniann brings an exceptional amount of enthusiasm and care for the health of the river and her passion helps others learn the beauty of it,” said Maggie Greenfield, executive director of the alliance and Bronx River administrator.

It’s been more than a decade since German first fell in love with the Bronx River. At Rocking the Boat during her freshman year, she was introduced to the river through water testing, sailing and rowing. The work that she and the other students were doing was treated as actual scientific data; the information they collected on the river was being used for websites and in classrooms.

“It was so life changing. That program makes you feel like you’re a part of something that’s bigger than yourself and you feel like you’re a part of a family, which is super important,” German said.

As her love for the river grew, German stuck with the program throughout her high school years, moving up from being a student to joining the job skills program to becoming a paid program assistant.

“Toniann immediately jumped out as super enthusiastic and passionate about what she was doing and became a very engaged member of our student body, involved in everything we did,” said Adam Green, founder and executive director of Rocking the Boat. “We’re very proud of what she’s doing with the alliance and it’s neat to see her taking what she learned here into the real world.”

After leaving the program, German taught preschool for four years, hoping to bring more environmental science into early childhood classrooms, but was unhappy being so disconnected from the river.

“After being in the preschool field, I literally went back to Rocking the Boat in tears because I wasn’t happy,” said German. “They had the great idea of connecting me with the Bronx River Alliance. They had seen me grow up and were familiar with my work at Rocking the Boat so they knew I cared about the river.”

German hopes to continue being a part of the evolution of the Bronx River waterfront, with plans to get a masters in environmental conservation. She also hopes to take what she’s learned about conservation to other communities as well. In the next 10 years, German plans to take her efforts out into the open oceans, getting into scuba diving while helping stop pollution and save sea life.

“I have this quote that goes, ‘There are people who live in this world, and there are people who are a part of it,’ and I like to consider myself as part of it, that I’m making a difference,” she said. “I’ve tried to pursue other things but part of me is always with the river. Work shouldn’t feel like work, it should be something your heart is into, and my heart is into this 100 percent.”

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