When Michelle Zimmer attended John F. Kennedy on Terrace View Avenue, it was still just a single high school with just a little more than a swamp outside the physical building. But years later — and with the support of many helping hands — quite a few changes have come to what is now known as the John F. Kennedy Educational Campus.
It wasn’t just a name change, but an entirely new approach to education on the site, becoming home to seven smaller schools. But the biggest change, at least to Zimmer, was the disappearance of the swamp and the founding of what’s now known as the Enchanted Garden.
Zimmer first learned of the garden some time ago through her work with Bronx Green Up, a community organization that provides horticultural education and community garden assistance. Still, she was originally dumbfounded to learn one of those community gardens was at her alma mater.
“I was like, ‘What do you mean, there’s a garden in front of Kennedy?’” Zimmer said. “It was a dirt field when I went there. And it is an oasis. It’s just amazing.”
For many years, the Enchanted Garden has been a community staple and a quiet place within a bustling city to sit and enjoy nature. But earlier this month, someone interrupted that peace by breaking into the garden and stealing some of its maintenance equipment.
The thief didn’t just take a few shovels and some fertilizer and call it a day. No, they stole power tools and other expensive equipment, a lot of which carried a price tag of more than $1,000.
That included six cordless drills and batteries, according to a crowdfunding site set up to replace the tools, as well as two cordless skill saws and batteries, one cordless chainsaw and battery, two toolboxes, two twist bits sets, and “other carpentry and metal working tools.”
News of the theft hit Danny Steiner particularly hard. While the Enchanted Garden’s maintenance is a community effort, Zimmer described it as Steiner’s “baby.” And the Bronx Theatre High School teacher can be found more often than not in the garden — with his class, with coworkers, or even by himself.
“I frequently take my students down there to enjoy nature, do science experiments, surveys and just (to) enjoy it,” Steiner said. “We also have had a school barbecue or two down there serving all the kids a few years ago. And every year for the past five or six years, I would have an Earth Day celebration.”
Now it’s the Kennedy community’s turn to give back, whether current or long-graduated students. For instance, Steiner started the online crowdfunding campaign while Zimmer turned to the Riverdale community Facebook group she runs — with more than 10,000 members — to boost attention and donations. As of Monday, nearly $2,700 had been donated.
It was on Facebook another Kennedy alum, Sara Kempton, learned of the theft and opened her wallet to help. She attended the school at the end of the 20th century, and has fond memories of working to make the Enchanted Garden what it is today.
“That first year, before I got there, they were pulling out tires and car parts and all types of random trash,” Kempton said. “By the time I got there, we were still designing paths. And they built the footbridge and I helped build the pond. And we were really just building it up into a space that we could be proud of.”
Steiner plans to use the crowdfunding donations not only to replace the stolen tools, but to invest in heavy-duty protective equipment to help prevent such a theft like this in the future.
“At construction sites, they have these various fortified steel boxes for storing tools that are very hard to get into,” Steiner said. “We’re going to put that in the tool shed and bolt it to the floor, and make a new door and all that stuff to keep that investment secure for another 10 years.”
But Steiner also is turning toward the future. Once the tools are replaced, he’s got other ideas he’d like to pursue, like a permanent water source so the garden doesn’t have to rely on rain and volunteers with watering cans.
Tools or no tools, the garden needs the community’s help to thrive, Steiner said. And they can be found working in the Enchanted Garden every weekend, providing the neighborhood with a much-needed oasis within a borough of 1.4 million people.
“It really is a special thing to have a school with such an established garden and such an established set of people who have been volunteering and working there,” Kempton said. “You don’t get that often in a city setting, and you don’t get that often with urban schools.
“To have that green space and all the benefits that come from spending time out there … is really something special. It’s really something that the community should be proud of.”
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