Miller students plant ‘gardens of love’ for Sandy victims (SLIDESHOW)

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Submitted/From left in front are Jonny Hackett, Mathew Howell and Ian Beral. In back from left are Vincent Villabroza and Daniel Bernal. Submitted/From left in front are Jonny Hackett, Mathew Howell and Ian Beral. In back from left are Vincent Villabroza and Daniel Bernal.

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP – Katalin Palotay Rosen, a fifth grade teacher at the Joyanne D. Miller School, had been living in the Chelsea Heights neighborhood in Atlantic City until Hurricane Sandy hit her home.

In the process of rebuilding and raising awareness of persisting issues on Absecon Island, Rosen befriended many residents around her neighborhood and heard their stories.

 Ironically through all the heartache the storm caused residents, many just wanted the neighborhood beautiful again—to have a garden that they couldn’t muster this year-either emotionally or financially, Rosen said.

So Rosen shared their stories with her fifth graders and they immediately wanted to help rebuild the gardens so the residents “wouldn’t be sad anymore,” an action not surprising to their teacher.

“The Terrific Twenty Six, as they chose to call themselves since the beginning of the year, leapt into action and created a plan to make a difference in other people’s lives,” Rosen said.

All year, the students had been coming up with creative ways to help the larger community, from raising money through performances to being entrepreneurial and selling items like cake pops to other students.

“But, the kids didn’t stop there,” Rosen said. “The Terrific Twenty Six produced their final production together, ‘the Compassion Campaign’—their real-life Compassion Campaign- planting gardens for Sandy Victims in Chelsea Heights.”

The play “the Compassion Campaign” is a tale they read from their school curriculum that tells the story of how children can help others. The message resonated with them, Rosen said, and they wanted to actually get involved first-hand with the Sandy victims.

So they got to work with the help of their teacher and some other supporters.

The students raised $150 to plant flowers. Rosen coordinated with city officials of Atlantic City to get items donated to help the kids. Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford and his aide Eddie Lax, along with Ernest Coursey worked together to donate cases of water bottles for the volunteers.  The Public Works Office of Atlantic City donated gloves and trash bags as well. Atlantic County Board of Chosen Freeholders Chairman Frank Formica, owner of Formica Brothers Bakery in Atlantic City, donated tomato pies to the children.

Rosen’s husband Mitchell worked with Produce Junction in Egg Harbor Township to get more than 70 flats of beautiful red, yellow and pink celosia; white, pink and red begonias, and other plants to beautify the Chelsea Heights neighborhood. 

“The students learned how to write letters and ask for help or donations.  They learned with the efforts of all involved that great events like this can happen,” Rosen said. “The students were all so excited that for several days before the event, they’d say, ‘I can’t wait to plant flowers and make people happy.  I’m so excited.’”

Rosen said her students’ enthusiasm for the project was so infectious, other students on the bus or other classes signed up to help.  Overall, there were more than 30 people with their parents, grandparents or siblings.

Chelsea Heights resident Gail Toy, a full-time nurse of 50 years and Rosen’s new friend since the storm, owned the biggest garden the children tackled.

“The kids worked on her back and front yard planting.  Everyone walked from Mrs. Toy’s house and planted flowers down Richmond, Stewart, Boulevard and Raleigh Avenues.  The joy that the students spread with their love and energy was priceless. One student, Rosa Urtado, was translating Spanish for two residents and another student Amanda translated Vietnamese for another resident.  Both students had so much pride and joy they could help not only plant flowers, but use a language from their heritage.”

The students spent more than four hours planting their “Gardens of Love,” as Toy coined them.  Many flowers were left over and an additional seven other families enjoyed planting the donated flowers. 

Rosen said while she was thanked by the residents, the gratitude should be given to the students and their families.

“Thank my students and their parents for making a difference in my life during a very difficult time.  They inspired me to pay it forward, to be compassionate.  My husband and I feel blessed to have my colleagues, new and old friends and the Terrific Twenty Six plus their families in our lives,” she said. “Life is truly beautiful in more ways than we can express.” 

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