When a neighbor of Katalin Rosen in the Chelsea Heights section of Atlantic City bemoaned how the repairs on her home from Hurricane Sandy had prevented her from planting a flower garden this year, Rosen got an idea.
The teacher at the Joyanne Miller School in Egg Harbor Township asked her students if they would like to help plant gardens for her neighbors.
They enthusiastically said yes, and on Wednesday, they arrived at Gail Toy's home with a few flats of flowers they had grown from seeds, 70 flats of flowers donated by Produce Junction and equipment from the Atlantic City Public Works Department. Tomato pies donated by Formica's kept them energized.
Rosen, who still has not been able to move into her own home, said she visited neighbors after the storm and stayed in touch with a few.
"They would tell me stories," Rosen said, "and one day Gail Toy mentioned how her 92-year-old mother would visit in the summer and loved to sit outside and admire the garden. But, this year, she was too busy getting her home back in order to find the time to plant one."
Toy, a public health nurse, now has moved back into her home, thanks to help from her son, Steve, who works in construction. He said the first floor of the home had to be gutted, and flood insurance covered only about one-third of the cost. Toy lived in an apartment for several months while the work was done.
Toy said she has managed to get a few vegetables in the ground, but the rainy spring weather has made it hard to garden.
For some students - most of them fifth graders in Rosen's homeroom and math classes - it was their first time gardening. But they caught on quickly.
David Chang, 11, delicately sprinkled dirt around the base of a small plant and asked if they should develop a plan for where they wanted to put the flowers.
"Just put it wherever," said Amanda Chau, 12, who commented on how soft the dirt was after all the rain. "Do whatever looks good."
Rosa Urtado, 10, has worked in her uncle's vegetable garden, but typically just does watering.
Sean Ryan, 6, came with his sister, Aileen, 11, and very carefully did his first-ever plantings.
Students planted rows of small, red begonias along a border in front of the house and created a mixed bed in the backyard.
Toy has been nurturing a new lawn and put a lot of organic manure in her beds, hoping to counteract the salt from the water that engulfed her home. She admitted she usually is pretty particular about her garden, but this year she was delighted to turn it over to the students.
"It will end up a garden of love," she said.
The group had so many flowers, they knocked on other neighbors' doors, and by dark had planted gardens in nine homes and a nearby park, Rosen said.
"We had some families who only spoke Vietnamese, but we had students who spoke Vietnamese and could translate," Rosen said. "And more students and parents came, so they were able to work in shifts."
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