Elementary students raise a garden in memory of a friend

TAMPA — Domestic violence is a tough lesson for children.

Here's how Ashley Chavez, a fifth-grader at Dunbar Elementary Magnet School, sees it:

"When someone is abusing someone in your house and in your family," she says, "you've got to do something."

Call 911. Go next door to a neighbor. Tell a grownup at school

The faculty at Ashley's school is teaching these lessons through an organic garden. Students have built raised beds, tilled the earth, planted vegetables, watered and decorated. On Tuesday, fifth-graders paired with kindergarteners to dig and plant peppers.

On the wooden sides of the beds, fifth-graders are painting peace signs, hearts and words of inspiration: Strength. Courage. Love.

The harvests from this garden will feed elderly residents at the nearby Mary McLeod Bethune high rise.

"They're going to have a good meal to cook up," said Roniesha Boyd, 12, ticking off the produce. "Bell peppers, broccoli, lettuce and green okra."

Throughout the school year, students walked to the high rise each month to give back. They sang songs, played violins, read stories and handed out homemade cards and cookies.

"They really have connected with them," says Melissa Jones, the lead teacher. "They were always excited to go."

But the children haven't been back since February. A link in the chain connecting the school to the residents was broken.

Erum Malik, 44, the event coordinator at the high rise, had planned bowling outings, walks at the park, trips to Walmart and birthday parties. The days when the children came were special.

She smiled and greeted each child. She always had a word of encouragement.

"She was a part of our Dunbar family," Jones said.

She was shot and killed Feb. 26 by her ex-husband, Malik Shamsher, who then shot himself.

School officials invited the residents to the garden's dedication on Friday. They plan to place a plaque with Malik's name in a central flower garden.

"We're going to continue serving the residents," Jones said. "What better way to remember her."

Elementary students raise a garden in memory of a friend 05/04/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 5, 2010 1:46am]

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