Newbie 'Green Team' Plants Seeds of Change

At a Collingswood elementary school, a group of parents, volunteers and educators cultivated a teachable moment and grew a sustainable garden.

“Wouldn’t it be cool to have a club that picks up trash?”

That’s the essence of the epiphany that struck Chloe and Riley Purdy on a trip to the Cape May Zoo about three years ago.

“There were tons of trash and litter,” Chloe Purdy said. “The zoo guide told us the animals were in danger from the trash there.”

The kids took their troubles to their principal, Mary Bezanis, of Mark Newbie Elementary School. A small chat evolved into a broader discussion about things they could do to be “greener”—plant more gardens, eat healthier and clean up more litter—and those impulses evolved into the Green Team after-school club.

Last year the Green Team adopted an osprey and built a platform for it to perch in Avalon, said Newbie parent Kim Finnie. This year, the group adopted the Indiana bat and is planning to build bat houses throughout the borough for it.

Green Team members have worked to clean up Cooper River in conjunction with the County Freeholders, clean up trash at their school, and spread their recycling ethic to their classmates.

And Tuesday, after some help from their parents, community volunteers, and some corporate grants, they officially cut the ribbon on a new community vegetable garden at the school.

'A sense of responsibility to the land that feeds them'

In remarks at the ceremony, another Green Team parent, Marisa Lombardo, said the idea for the garden began with “a weekly shopping trip to Whole Foods,” where she picked up a brochure about “giving grants to elementary schools to create edible gardens.

“What did we have to lose?” Lombardo said. “What better way to give each child a sense of responsibility to the land that feeds them?”

An 18-page grant spurred some donations from neighbors and local businesses, and before long, children were planting lettuce sprouts in a beautifully designed and built series of garden boxes overshadowed by an equally impressive pergola.

Mortgage banker Jim Ciamaichelo did the initial design while he was working with Warner Landscape and Patio, which also donated materials to the project. Sal Scarpato of Nova Tree Service built it in “four solid evenings.” Al Hird, Grounds Director for Collingswood Public Schools became part of the team “because I’m going to be coordinating the before, the after, the during,” he said.

“I play in dirt for a living, so this is awesome,” Hird said.

'Much more interesting than recycling'

With a rain garden being completed at Zane North Elementary School this summer and a greenhouse at the high school, Hird said it’s only a matter of time before the remaining schools in the district start getting antsy for eco-projects of their own.

“They’re going to be looking to their PTAs,” he said. “Once [the kids] start getting their hands dirty and see that this is something they can do, this stuff becomes contagious,” he said.

“It’s much more interesting than recycling.”

What’s so rewarding about bringing a project like the Newbie garden to completion, Hird said, is that even as recently as a couple years ago, such an idea wouldn’t have been on anyone’s radar.

“When they meet at the high school in six or seven years, they’ll already have a greenhouse,” he said; “they’ll know.”

Bezanis echoed his sentiments.

“I think this is their first real understanding of what’s going on; the first time it’s real,” she said.

Bezanis gave all the credit to second-grade teacher Marie Mayer, whom she said has worked “for years” with her students to make them more environmentally conscious. Bezanis knows the lessons stick, too, because parents report back to her, “My child is coming home and making me feel bad” that they’re not recycling well enough.

“Now they’re going to understand about the care [of the garden],” she said.

With good weather and proper attention to the plants, the children should be harvesting their crop—appropriately enough—by Thanksgiving.


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