Mary Sciales, 51, of Flushing, an urban community garden activist and lifelong educator who introduced horticultural activities to children with special needs, died on May 22 at North Shore-LIJ Hospital after a two-year battle with leukemia.
City Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing), called Sciales a genuinely selfless individual who New Yorkers were honored to count among their own. “Her service and love for the community at large as well as for her friends and family were unparalleled. We will truly miss Mary, and are all better people for having had her in our lives.”
A lifelong resident of Flushing, and vice president of the Kissena Park Civic Association, Sciales began incorporating gardening into her teaching curriculum 24 years ago while studying special education in the Netherlands. Surrounded by the Dutch flower and bulb industry, she observed the therapeutic value that the country’s vast gardens had for children with severe emotional and physical disabilities.
After returning to the United States in the early 1980s, she began working with emotionally, physically and mentally challenged children at an elementary cluster school in East New York, Brooklyn. Seeing an opportunity to introduce gardening as a form of therapy for children, she began a two-decade journey of volunteering and uniting local community activists, teachers and civic and parks groups in this case to reclaim an abandoned lot next to the school.
Named “Paradise Garden,” Sciales spearheaded the transformation of the 14,000-square foot lot into an urban oasis, soliciting support from parks and environmental organizations such as the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, the City Parks Foundation, New Yorkers for Parks, New York Restoration and The Greenthumb Program.
Paradise Garden officially became part of city Department of Parks system in 1998. The Parks Department describes it as, “conceived as an outdoor educational classroom, with its primary goals being to link literacy and gardening in the curriculum, to increase community awareness and to develop pride among the students and the community.”
Open to other schools in the neighborhood, Paradise Garden features a variety of flowers and species of trees, raised vegetable and herb beds, brick pathways that enable wheelchair-bound students to move about, a stage for performances such as plays, puppet shows and fall harvest events, an elaborate composting and rain water collection apparatus, a fish pond, picnic tables and a gazebo.
Sciales earned numerous awards for her community gardening and civic accomplishments, including the 2004 Daffodil Project Citywide Award.
In a letter published in The New York Times in 1997, Sciales argued that community gardens should not be sacrified for new housing developments, but instead be incorporated into the plans for new housing.
“Our students need to be taught, guided and given skills so they can successfully make a positive contribution to our society. It is through the work in our garden that our students find a place in which they can create and improve the world in which they live. Our gardens are an oasis of beauty in the deserts of urban decay,” she wrote.
Sciales earned a Bachelor of Science in physical education from Adelphi University and a master’s degree in special education from Queens College. She was a certified American Red Cross swimming, water safety, first aid and CPR instructor.
She began her career as a physical education teacher at St. Fidelis elementary school in College Point.
Sciales is survived by her parents, Dr. William Sciales and Dr. Nancy Shevell Sciales, of Flushing; her lifetime partner, Anne Pace; five siblings; and seven nieces and nephews.
At the family’s request, a memorial fund has been established for the Paradise Garden in Mary Sciales’s name. Donations should be made payable to P.S. 4K Paradise Garden and sent to: P.S. 4K Paradise Garden, c/o Great Circle Media, 2005 Palmer Ave. Number 256, Larchmont, NY 10538.