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A preschool garden grows in Aberdeen
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A preschool garden grows in Aberdeen

A dream that might have died before it ever got started is now a reality, thanks to 15-year-old Ethan Seltzer and other members of his Manalapan Boy Scout troop.

Together with 16 of his fellow Scouts, parents, adult leaders, and friends, the teenager has designed and built a 15-by-63-foot garden and outdoor classroom at the Temple Beth Ahm Preschool in Aberdeen.

The vision for the project, which Ethan is using in his quest for Eagle Scout status, came from Amy Naphtali, the preschool’s director. Naphtali believed her students, ages two-four, should learn that food comes from the earth, not a Styrofoam container. She also wanted them to experience the planning and hard work that goes into successfully growing vegetables.

But after two years of uphill fund-raising, Naphtali thought the project might be a goner. “I called a professional landscaper for an estimate, and it was four times the amount I had collected,” she told NJJN.

That’s when Ethan came on the scene. His mother, Pilar, is a teacher at the preschool, and, aware of Naphtali’s disappointment, she made a connection between her son and her boss.

Ethan approached his Scout group, Troop 434, and found a number of willing helpers.

With volunteer labor, Naphtali decided to go forward on the project, which, she estimated, would cost about $3,000.

Ethan, a sophomore at the Biotechnology High School in Freehold, sought some help about crop selection and planting techniques from his father, Jeff, an experienced home gardener. He also received advice from Lou Illuzzi, a family friend and professional engineer, with regard to a gutter system to collect rainwater runoff from an existing storage shed. Otherwise, the design was largely Ethan’s, based on elements specified by Naphtali.

Construction was completed in just two days, Oct. 6 and 14.

The finished garden features four five-foot-square planting beds framed with beams and raised 18 inches off the ground. In the rear section a small wooden stage is fronted by five sturdy tree stumps anchored in the ground for the children to sit on or use as stepping stones.

One long side of the garden is adjacent to the school’s playground, with a chain-link fence between the two. Naphtali said future plans call for removal of the fence so that the children will be able to move freely between the garden and the play area.

Naphtali, a Morganville resident and mother of three children in local schools, is a member of Beth Ahm and has been working there for nine years. “We have about 50 students in five classes, and we also run a Mommy & Me program,” she said.

“My goal for the school is to provide hands-on experiences that will help the kids learn on their own. I want them to gain confidence, to not be afraid of bugs, and to ask questions and learn how to interact in social situations. The garden is an extension of this type of natural learning environment,” Naphtali said.

Once she has a little experience using the new outdoor classroom, Naphtali said, she plans to have staff people from other area schools come to visit and see how it works. Anyone interested in booking a visit is invited to call her at 732-583-1010.

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