Taking Root in Camden, New Jersey

Center for Environmental Transformation, Camden, NJLooking back on the day, it seems so surreal. It was mid-March and dirty mounds of snow still huddled in corners. I had only been at this site for a few months, only been teaching at the neighborhood school for some weeks.

A 4th grader at the school died in a car accident a few weeks back. I didn’t know her, but two of her cousins were in the 5th grade class I regularly taught. My service site agreed to help facilitate a memorial service for the students, a tree planting in the park behind the school (and service site’s office).

In the early morning, Ari, my supervisor, dug a hole for the tree. We unfolded the pop-up tents around the hole, the tents that usually cover our youth-run farmers market. It was drizzling, and like the rain, the students trickled under the tents slowly, some with eyes puffed and stained red.

Andy, the executive director of the water treatment facility down the street led the service. He spoke upon the tragedy of the situation, and asserted that the tree was both a reminder of the cycles of life and a place where the community could visit anytime they wished.

In conclusion, he read a poem the departed wrote, a reflection upon bullying and the city of Camden, personifying the city as someone that just needs to be understood and loved in order to change its negative ways.

As the words poured out of Andy’s lips, so too did the rain. The water pounded the plastic roofs, and the students’ tears rushed out, sending a ripple effect throughout the gathered crowd. At that moment, the world cried on Camden’s South Waterfront neighborhood.

urbanfarms_homeAri, bravely stepped forward and explained how to plant the tree. The mother of the deceased shoveled soil into the hole, and one by one, the students followed suit, burying the trees’ roots along with their sorrows.

Later that day, students studied the poem Trees, by the New Jersey native poet, Joyce Kilmer.

The tree took root and soon blossomed that Spring. The two 5th grade students who were cousins of the deceased, asked me one day if I could help them plant around the tree. We did so the following week, during recess, surrounding the base with marigolds and zinnias. Center for Environmental Transformation, Camden, NJ
I remember feeling odd deciding how to log those hours in my time sheets. I guess it most fits as “engaging students in school gardening”. Or perhaps even better as “service site training” for this was not the last of tragic occurrences to happen in the community.

Regardless, this was a defining moment for me, setting the tone and scope for the context of my service. Nutrition, gardening, and local procurement became such secondary priorities, even after thoughts that year. For the students I worked with wanted to heal, not only themselves, but the community, the land, and the city of Camden.