IHCC and Metro State Students Plant Orchard in Newtown, Conn.

Orchard in Newtown, Conn.
Orchard in Newtown, Conn.

Ceremony honors those lost during Sandy Hook tragedy

In early October, two psychology professors and eight students from Inver Hills Community College and Metropolitan State University traveled to Newtown, Conn., to plant 30 trees at the town’s public Victory Garden to honor the memories of the children and adults killed during the December 2012 mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Barbara Curchack, Ph.D, a professor of psychology at Inver Hills, and August Hoffman, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Metro State, sponsored the student trip. During the summer of 2012, Curchack and Hoffman teamed up to establish a community garden and orchard on the Inver Hills campus.

Inspired by the therapeutic and community-building benefits intrinsic to cooperative gardening, the Inver Hills Community College-Metropolitan State University Interdisciplinary Community Garden produces nutritious and great-tasting food while serving as an outdoor classroom and laboratory. That same sense of community energized the tree-planting trip to Connecticut.

“We planted our orchard on the Inver campus on the fifth of October in 2012,” Curchack said. “The tragedy in Newtown happened a couple of months later.

Dr. Hoffman called Amy Mangold, Newtown’s director of parks and recreation, offering to plant an orchard in the town’s Victory Garden, which had been created in 2011 to help relieve hunger in community.”

Knowing that Newtown residents had been overwhelmed by media and well-wishers following the tragedy, Curchack and Hoffman were surprised when Mangold, who had requested time to think about the offer, eventually responded with an invitation to come to Newtown.

Arrangements were made for the trip with three students from Inver and five from Metro State volunteering to go. All the students had experience working in the Inver Hills-Metro State Community Garden. The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation donated 60 trees in total, 30 for the Victory Garden orchard and 30 for Newtown residents to plant in their yards. Cem Atkin, the foundation’s executive director, facilitated the donation and delivery of the trees.

Hoffman reported that the group arrived in Newtown Friday, Oct. 4. “Our students entered the community and never once felt like outsiders,” he said. “When people found out the nature and purpose of our visit, they opened up their homes and their hearts to us.”

With the help of Newtown residents, the students and their professors planted a variety of fruit trees, creating an orchard with apple, fig, peach and cherry trees Saturday, Oct. 5. That same day, a ceremony was held to remember and honor the children and adults who lost their lives in the Sandy Hook tragedy. A Harvest Festival ran concurrently with the orchard-planting.

“Planting trees has traditionally remained an important way to help people come together and celebrate life,” Hoffman said.

According to a Victory Garden blog post, the fruit trees when fully mature “will provide the community with a healthy harvest and clean air each year, with approximately 1,650 pounds of fresh fruit harvest, 7,425 pounds of carbon dioxide sequestered, 5,850 pounds of oxygen created, and 225 pounds of air pollutants filtered from the atmosphere.”

Rico Montenegro, an arborist with the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation, provided detailed tree-planting instructions to Newtown residents. James O. Gaston, the Newtown selectman, attended the ceremony and thanked the group from Inver and Metro State. Harvey Pessin, the Victory Garden director, helped locate where the trees were planted and arranged music for the day. The evening before, he and his wife, Brit, had the entire group of 10 over to their home for dinner.

“We were so lucky to be asked to come to Newtown,” Curchack said. “The town received so many gifts following the tragedy that residents placed a moratorium on gift-giving until they could catch up. At one point, they received eighteen tractor-trailer loads of paper snowflakes. Everyone was incredibly gracious and hospitable. I learned the power of giving. We were in Newtown because we were invited. We realized we were there not for ourselves as helpers, but for the people who accepted our help.”

Curchack added that the group met a teacher who was present at Sandy Hook during the shootings and an American Red Cross coordinator who was first on the scene and the last to leave 19 weeks later. She said that Advantage Signs & Graphics, Inc., of St. Paul donated a plaque to honor the Sandy Hook victims. The plaque will be placed in Newtown’s city hall.

The group went to a local Italian restaurant, Armandos, for a farewell meal. Hoffman said the owners, Armando and Mae Roma, made everyone feel right at home. The group met a local couple, Bob and Pamela Gleason, at the restaurant. When the Gleasons realized the group was in Newtown for the orchard-planting ceremony, and that they had mutual acquaintances in the close-knit town, they bought everyone dinner.

“Bob told me the people of Newtown are a very resilient and positive group of individuals,” Hoffman said. “He told me ninety-nine percent of the people are good in spirit and that we should focus on the strengths we all share in the community.”

The trip proved to be a powerful and rewarding experience for the professors and their students. Hoffman was moved by how open and friendly the community of Newtown was with the tragedy less than a year in the past. “The trip was a uniquely positive, phenomenal and emotional experience,” he said.

Curchack said the students were equally impressed by the Newtown residents. “The lives of our students were forever changed by our trip to Newtown,” she said. “I don’t think they had ever experienced that level of hospitality, graciousness and thankfulness. They have a deeper understanding of what it means to be part of a community.”

For more information about the Inver Hills Community College-Metropolitan State University Interdisciplinary Community Garden, contact:

Barbara Curchack, Ph.D.
Psychology Professor
Inver Hills-Metro State Interdisciplinary Community Garden Co-Director
Inver Hills Community College
(651) 450-3739
August Hoffman, Ph.D.
Psychology Professor
Inver Hills-Metro State Interdisciplinary Community Garden Co-Director
Metropolitan State University
(651) 999-5814

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