ROCHESTER — With beads of sweat rolling down their faces, Thomas Hilire and Adam Johnson swung shovels of dirt over and over — all for a good cause.
The two high-school students took the lead on digging a 5-foot hole last month in the center of a vacant lot on Clifford Avenue as part of a Puerto Rican Youth Development and Resource Center project to create a memorial garden. The garden will honor city youths who have lost their lives, 15-year-old Thomas explained. And in the area that Thomas and Adam helped dig up on Aug. 16, students later placed totem poles — with the words "Remember Rochester Youth" painted on them — that they created to represent those who have died.
While not all of those young lives were lost to violence, the garden will still serve as a daily reminder that the community must work to ensure that the northeast neighborhoods became safer for all, noted Thomas, a junior at Aquinas Institute.
"If you are constantly reminded about it (violence), you’re going to do something about it," he remarked. "Every time people walk past this garden, they’re going to see the totem pole and read the sign."
The 30 students who took part in the agency’s Summer of Opportunity STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Program came up with the garden’s theme, designed its layout, spoke with family members to learn about the youths they were representing in the memorial, and created a public-awareness campaign through fliers and ads, explained Noemi Ortiz, a counselor at PRYD which is now a subsidiary of Ibero-American Action League. The city and Project HOPE, an Ibero-American Development Corp. initiative to improve the northeast neighborhoods of Rochester, also served as community partners.
During the last two weeks the six-week summer program, the students were divided into morning and afternoon groups to work on the lot — weeding, raking up lawn and other debris, prepping the soil, and placing the flowers and plants.
While it’s unfortunate that such a garden has to be created, the project did offer an opportunity to memorialize and celebrate the lives of these young people who have died, noted Marisol Ramos-López, the city’s northeast neighborhood service center administrator.
"These gardens really beautify the area and give neighbors a greater sense of community," she added. "The other important part of this garden is that young people are creating it, taking care of it and cultivating it."
As he washed his car and watched the PRYD youths work, next-door neighbor Jose Angel Torres said that he wholeheartedly supports the PRYD project. A recent transplant from Guayama, Puerto Rico, Torres said that a garden is preferable to living next to empty homes or lots that are ripe for vandalism.
"It’s good to always do something positive," Torres said. "And we must support people who are doing something good and give them the opportunity to move themselves forward."
Neighbors also partook in the project by housing the equipment, watering plants and keeping a watchful eye, Bermudez added.
"The community is welcoming what we have here, which is really great," he said.
Father Laurence Tracy blessed the garden on Aug. 26 on the very site where his own grandparents lived during his childhood, he said.
"Look at this place and neighborhood not as a place of violence or death, but as a place where we can build peace and harmony," Father Tracy remarked.
Jomar Feliciano knows about the struggle to find a positive outlet, as he has gotten into trouble at school for fighting. When he heard about the city’s youth employment program, Jomar said that he signed up to earn some money to buy school supplies and clothes and was glad to have been selected for the PRYD project.
His cousin was recently shot in the face by a stray bullet, so he said that he can identify with the anti-violence theme of the garden, added Jomar, a freshman at Monroe High School.
"It’s lucky she is alive," he said of his cousin. "In this neighborhood, a lot of young people have lost their lives to violence. … Their families can come here and remember all the good things and forget about the bad things that have happened."
PRYD and Hillside also have helped get him back on the right track, where he said he plans to stay. He is even able to go to a classroom during lunch to "chill out" and stay out of trouble, remarked Jomar, who moved with his family from Ponce, Puerto Rico when he was 7.
"I’m trying to focus more on my work and my education," he said.