The goals of Ridaje: Getting people off the street, training, integrating, restoring dignity through work, caring

By Cecilia Seppia

Dec 13 2023

Italian computer engineer Lorenzo Di Ciaccio left his job at a big company and used his severance pay to found “Ridaje”. The organization helps poor people care for themselves through work in reclaiming abandoned green areas of Rome. “Nobody can save themselves, but our mission is to save and change the world one garden at a time.”

“Daje!” (come on!) is a word Romans say in confidence when they wish to encourage someone, to give them strength and not to give up. It also expresses a cheer when their favourite team scores or when celebrating a friend’s success. “Ridaje” is a kind of reinforcement, a “daje” said twice as well as the name of Lorenzo Di Ciaccio’s start-up that offers a second life, a chance at redemption for the many, too many homeless who live on the streets of the Eternal City. Around ten years ago, Lorenzo, a 38-year-old computer engineer from Gaeta, decided to leave his well-paid, steady job to dedicate himself to solving a social issue that the Church and charitable Church organizations have always tried to address. But even before Ridaje, Lorenzo used his severance pay to develop Pedius when he drew closer to social entrepreneurship through IT work.

He tells us, “I saw a television story about Gabriele, a deaf boy, who was unable to call for an ambulance following an accident. This struck me a lot and I started to think about a solution, the idea of software that would allow people with hearing disabilities to make phone calls, and not just in an emergency. I did not know of anyone with this type of problem. Gabriele became my first deaf friend.” Pedius is now operative in 14 countries around the world, raising capital with a turnover of 700,000 euros. Its customers include large entities in Italy such as the Bank of Italy, Telecom, and Enel. But Lorenzo is still looking to do more and returns to the issue of homelessness. “For 12 years amidst many activities and commitments, I also managed to volunteer at Caritas. My task was to open and close one of the many emergency shelters from the cold that function in the capital from Christmas to Easter.”

Social work is good business

“Over the years I realized that knocking at the door of these Caritas-run shelters were always the same faces, the same people, only more exhausted, aged, frightened, and sick. I said to myself: ‘But then won’t a bed to sleep in and a hot meal get you off the streets? What can I do about this tragedy that affects all the great cities of the world?’ In the meantime, I shared the experience of Pedius at universities, and in one of those meetings with students at LUISS University I met a researcher, Luca Mongelli, who was studying the empowerment of marginalized persons, especially prisoners, trying to identify social and labour integration once they served their sentences.”

Lorenzo and Luca started working together, creating a business model, focusing on another scourge afflicting Rome: green areas, parks, and abandoned and rundown villas.

“We said to ourselves: if companies and citizens are willing to stop complaining about rundown cities and pay something to make a cleaner place, we can find a way.” They liked the idea and it started taking shape. And once again it brings out a truth that runs throughout Laudato si’ and the stories we have shared so far: take care of the environment and the environment will take care of you. The two made agreements with companies, individuals, and shops. “All too often we tend to create a clear distinction between profit and non-profit, as if profit were evil, says Lorenzo, but in reality, what we want to show with Ridaje is that social work can be a business and that in a capitalist marketplace, it is possible to give space to the human person, simply by putting him or her back at the centre, as Pope Francis explains.” The study also shows that of the 70,000 homeless people in the country, 80 percent live in big cities and more than 20 percent live on the streets of Rome, which is also the city with the highest number of green areas in Europe and with less than 200 professional gardeners to look after them.

What does Ridaje do in brief?

Ridaje has agreements with the City of Rome’s social services, Caritas, the Community of Sant’Egidio, and smaller organizations that help select personnel with the support of psychologists. Among the people needing assistance, there are also those who may suffer from alcohol or drug addiction and for them, a path of rehabilitation is necessary before introducing them to the workplace. “Many of them,” explains Di Ciaccio, “are often capable of working but lack stability and continuity; those who really manage to get off the streets are those who make fewer mistakes since they move more slowly but more steadily. One of the problems is actually over-enthusiasm. People who start off in fourth gear, with a very strong drive will collapse at a certain point.”

The selection phase is delicate and important: at Ridaje around one hundred interviews are held in six months to choose a maximum of ten persons who will attend a 40-hour gardening course with a theoretical part and a practical part, including the use of machinery. Of these ten people, only two go on to work in the company with a part-time contract, which, however, guarantees a decent living and the search for another job in the meantime. The Ridaje workers are also responsible for mapping the green areas in need of redevelopment. The mapping is done on the recommendation of the city and citizens, who through the Ridaje website can buy crowdfunding hours to dedicate to green areas. After an estimate is made, work starts and teams are organized and sent to the site. So far 50 homeless people have attended the training course, and 16 have already worked with Ridaje. Eight of them have found other jobs as gardeners with other companies.

A story within a story

“A while back ago,” Lorenzo recounts, “I was at a very prestigious law firm and the owner who was in front of me was on the phone with one of his suppliers complaining that the gardeners for services in that very wealthy area of Rome always added a zero to their estimate. So, I told him: if you want, I’ll send you gardeners! And he looked at me like I was crazy, and half serious and facetious exclaimed: do you want to bring the homeless on a rooftop like this? But then he accepted my proposal, since he already knew my work with Pedius, saying that he wouldn’t mention anything to his partners, and that if something happened then I would have to offer him dinner; otherwise, he would guarantee Ridaje a contract. And so it was. Since then we have been maintaining this terrace for years. Incidentally, while we were there, one of our gardeners who was looking out from the terrace overlooking a large and well-known square in Rome confided in me with bright eyes: ‘See that bench there, that’s the bench I was on during my first night on the street. I mistakenly thought the safest place to sleep was in the historic centre controlled by the police and crowded with tourists who might leave me some money, but instead, I realized I had become invisible. Around me on other benches or on the ground on cardboard pieces were other homeless people. And it was uncomfortable and damp because of the Tiber. After a while, I caught pneumonia. Now looking down from above I feel privileged. I feel moved, I feel I have made it.’”

Changing the world, garden by garden

In addition to the social entrepreneurship behind Ridaje, there are many global ideas and values that the Pope expresses in Laudato si’ and reinforces with his exhortation Laudate Deum. First of all, by taking care of a green space, people take care of themselves. Lorenzo concludes, “Our approach is a form of therapeutic gardening, and by tending the earth you regain dignity, you become visible again. Nobody can take people off the street by force, the only power is love, goodness. We help this kind of love to spread again. We build a network, because as the Holy Father says, no one is saved alone. Laudato si’ is a confirmation of our empirical studies and gives us hope that we are moving in the right direction.” Ridaje today has entered an acceleration programme, giving shares in the company to those who invest in the project. It won the ‘Open Innovation’ tender of Italy’s Ferrovie dello Stato. So far it has reclaimed over 50,000 square metres of green space and now with the crowdfunding campaign, the company is preparing to take on larger orders. And above all, to buy a home for the homeless that will give them the ‘safe space’ that everyone needs to feel good. “Our mission is to change the world for the better, one garden at a time, and instead of thinking about maximizing profits, to have an ethic that also focuses on the happiness and wellbeing of individuals: this is what we are talking about in schools and universities when we speak on social entrepreneurship and the many ramifications it involves.” – Vatican News