Island Gardeners Dig In to Coler Courtyard Restoration

On a hot Wednesday morning this week, more than 130 Google employees arrived on the grounds of Coler Hospital to help transform a large, scraggly, and long-neglected courtyard, damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, into a peaceful, landscaped retreat for the hospital’s long-term residents.

The endeavor was part of Citizens Committee for NYC’s (CCNY) Love Your City program, which connects corporate volunteers with local groups actively improving their communities, and was led by a coalition of Roosevelt Island organizations dedicated to protecting and promoting Island green spaces as well as Coler’s therapeutic recreation department.

For Island volunteers, the day started long before the first Google employees arrived. At 7:30 a.m., the Coler van stopped at the Roosevelt Island Community Garden to pick up Anthony Longo and a collection of gardening tools on loan from the Green Roosevelt Island Neighbors (GRIN). iDig2Learn’s Christina Delfico was waiting at the hospital when Jovemay Santos, director of therapeutic recreation at Coler, arrived with cartons of Starbucks coffee, joined by the Roosevelt Island Garden Club’s Julia Fergusen and a group from CCNY. By 10:00 a.m., the first shift of Google employees had pulled up.

Erika Lim (CCNY), Anthony Longo (GRIN), Christina Delfico (iDig2Learn), prepare for a day of planting.

The group’s work comprised everything that makes a garden a space for reflection, serenity, and sustenance. The planting included not only flowers and greenery, but also tomato and chive plants. One section was designed with native plantings to attract pollinators and monarch butterflies. Large boulders were brought in, umbrellas were installed for shade, fences were painted, trees were labelled, and a large awning was painted in bright colors.

“That’s never been taken care of, and I’ve lived here for 25 years,” said an appreciative Coler resident.

Wednesday’s beautification effort was inspired by the efforts of Melrose Barnes, a Coler resident who had been doing what he could to care for the hospital’s indoor plants from the confines of his wheelchair. He was a regular visitor to the community garden, where member Longo would set aside compost for him.

“[Barnes] inspired me to get involved in some way,” says Longo. “He would wheel over one bucket of compost at a time whenever he could. He never asked for anything. That’s not his style.” Barnes had mentioned the sad state of the hospital’s courtyard, which is typically used for concerts, spring programming, and barbecues, as well as horticultural therapy. After being flooded with seawater during Hurricane Sandy, the space had never fully recovered.

“He caused us to think about Coler plantings and the garden spaces that he talked about during his visits,” says Fergusen, who describes Barnes as “a familiar and friendly face for those of us who spend so much of our free time around the gardens.”

Google employees paint the Coler courtyard awning.​

Last fall, Delfico and Fergusen met with Santos and recreational therapist Margaret Lopes. “We took pictures and saw all of their gardens from the inside looking out as the patients see them,” says Fergusen. “Many of their spaces are kept alive by their dogged persistence and with patient help. We chose places where we could make a difference.”

Garden Club volunteers did some initial work on the courtyard in April, focusing on a small garden off the courtyard that connects to a women’s memory unit. On Wednesday, however, they had people power, as well as wheelbarrows, carts full of seedlings, cans of brightly colored paint, and a shaded area with tables full of snacks and cold water.

“They have touched every corner of this space,” Lopes said of the volunteers.

Currently, Lopes works with patients at an indoor garden to grow fruits and vegetables, as well as herbs like basil, rosemary, and lavender for aromatherapy. “The residents take pride in this,” Lopes said. It’s also good for them, says Santos, citing research that shows gardening and being outdoors influences healing, reduces stress, promotes well-being, and provides opportunities for socialization.

Barnes, however, says he just wants a quiet place to relax and meditate. “I enjoy the flowers and smell of the roses,” he says of the new space. “I love the sunflower and the butterfly garden that will attract everyone who happens to pass by.”

Melrose Barnes plants seeds in the newly renovated Coler courtyard. Photo by Christina Delfico.

For the Island-based volunteers, the project was much larger than one garden.

As Longo sees it, it’s about doing right by your neighbors. “Mr. Barnes and I are just two guys trying to do right by the world and the people around us,” he says. “With some help from our friends, we are on track to, hopefully, improve the quality of life for some folks who really deserve it.”

“Everyone here at Coler is touched by this generous gift of giving by all concerned,” said Coler CEO Robert Hughes. “We are deeply moved by the volunteers from the Roosevelt Island Garden Club and Green Roosevelt Island Neighbors.”

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